What happened in Houston, TX is surreal. It is the type of action one expects in a Communist nation, not in the 4th largest city in the United States. It was reported yesterday that City of Houston attorneys subpoenaed five pastors who were part of a coalition of 400 Houston-area churches that opposed the city’s non-discrimination ordinance passed by the Houston City Council last June.
The city demands that the pastors turn over any materials related to “the topics of equal rights, civil rights, homosexuality, or gender identity,” communications with a lawyer at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), budgetary information and “[a]ll speeches, presentations, or sermons related to [the non-discrimination ordinance], the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker [the city’s first openly lesbian mayor], homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.”
The ordinance in the center of this lawsuit disallows discrimination based on sexual preference and gender identity. Nicknamed the “bathroom bill” one of the items that the ordinance would allow is men using the women’s restroom and vice versa.
17,269 petitions were needed to put a referendum on the ballot, those opposing the ordinance gathered more than 50,000 which the city council threw out stating there were irregularities.
As a result several of the opponents sued the city, and the city responded with a subpoena delivered to these five pastors who are not part of the lawsuit. If they do not comply they will be held in contempt of court.
ADF filed a motion in a Texas court to stop the attempt by the city Houston to subpoena sermons and other communications that belong to the pastors.
“City council members are supposed to be public servants, not ‘Big Brother’ overlords who will tolerate no dissent or challenge,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley. “In this case, they have embarked upon a witch-hunt, and we are asking the court to put a stop to it.”
“The city’s subpoena of sermons and other pastoral communications is both needless and unprecedented,” said ADF Litigation Counsel Christiana Holcomb. “The city council and its attorneys are engaging in an inquisition designed to stifle any critique of its actions. Political and social commentary is not a crime; it is protected by the First Amendment.”
Andrew Kloster, a legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, believes this subpoena was meant to be a tool of intimidation rather than be have much use in the lawsuit.
At best, the lawyer who drafted the motion is overly zealous, even though it should have been obvious that the subpoenas were not seeking information that would be relevant to the lawsuit. More likely, though, the city of Houston wants to intimidate those pastors (and others) who might support plaintiffs’ viewpoint into not speaking out.
How might it intimidate pastors? First, no one likes the government poking around in their business, and it is costly to respond to subpoenas. Second, many folks are being targeted for speech supporting the traditional understanding of marriage—much of their speech has been wrongly characterized as “anti-gay” speech. Don’t believe it? Just ask Brendan Eich, former CEO of Mozilla. Third, there is a renewed effort to claim that religious organizations should not be “political,” a pernicious claim that is enshrined in anti-religious laws such as the Johnson Amendment.
Regardless of how ADF’s motion turns out, if I were one of these pastors exercising civil disobedience would be prudent. They must not give into such bullying tactics. If this is allowed to stand unchallenged I shudder to think of what the consequences may be.
Fortunately it looks as though these pastors have some intestinal fortitude, as Todd Starnes at Fox News reports:
Among those slapped with a subpoena is Steve Riggle, the senior pastor of Grace Community Church. He was ordered to produce all speeches and sermons related to Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality and gender identity.
The mega-church pastor was also ordered to hand over “all communications with members of your congregation” regarding the non-discrimination law.
“This is an attempt to chill pastors from speaking to the cultural issues of the day,” Riggle told me. “The mayor would like to silence our voice. She’s a bully.”
Rev. Dave Welch, executive director of the Texas Pastor Council, also received a subpoena. He said he will not be intimidated by the mayor.
“We’re not afraid of this bully,” he said. “We’re not intimidated at all.”
He accused the city of violating the law with the subpoenas and vowed to stand firm in the faith.
“We are not going to yield our First Amendment rights,” Welch told me. ‘This is absolutely a complete abuse of authority.”
We should stand with them.