Houston, Texas has become a hotbed of controversy, stirring both constitutional law experts and religious leaders to denounce recent demands for five area pastors to turn over any sermon notes or private communications addressing issues of homosexuality or gender identity. Annise Parker, the city’s first openly lesbian mayor, declared the material fair game for government inspection, but is now backpedaling and denying responsibility for the broad sweeping language in the subpoenas. The pastors and Christian supporters across the country are standing firm on their biblical position in regards to homosexual rights and the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (H.E.R.O.), the non-discrimination bill adopted in May 2014, which allows transgender individuals to use their bathroom of choice. They are prepared to stand up for their beliefs, regardless of the personal cost, against what Charisma News, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission president, Russell Moore and Forbes Magazine characterize as bullying and intimidation.
The controversy stems from evangelical Christian opposition to the H.E.R.O. ordinance, of which the pastors were a part, although none of them is named in the lawsuit against the city of Houston seeking to repeal the measure by public vote in the November election, although a conflict over the signatures gathered for the petition may delay the vote. The mayor’s chief policy officer, Janice Evans justifies the request as part of a discovery process looking into individuals with ties to the plaintiffs in the religiously motivated lawsuit. The Houston Chronicle reports that the subpoenas demand, “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to H.E.R.O., the Petition, Mayor Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.” The broad scope of the request has stirred up both Christians, who see it as an attack on their sincerely held beliefs and constitutional experts, who affirm this as an assault on religious liberty under the First Amendment. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) states that the sermons are, “constitutionally protected.”
Evans maintains that if the pastors used their pulpits to conduct politics, the sermons are not protected under the First Amendment. She asserts that the sermons are relevant to the case and open to discovery. David Feldman, Houston city attorney, contends that the requests for the pastor’s communications is reasonable because the opposition to the ordinance met at churches to organize and city officials have the right to know what was said and if congregants received directions on the petitions. The Washington Post reports that the lawsuit will come to trial in January 2015.
The ADF filed a stop motion on the subpoenas representing the pastors’ position that the orders are, “over broad, unduly burdensome, harassing and vexatious.” Law professor, David Skeel of the University of Pennsylvania finds the demands very unusual and radical, expressing the opinion that there is no question that the requests are designed to send a message to Houston residents that dissent or criticism of city officials or policies will not be tolerated. The ADF asserts that allowing the subpoenas to stand will discourage citizens from launching legal protests against city ordinances in the future, because it will poison the referendum process and eliminate an important component of the checks and balances system that is fundamental to American federal, state and local governments. Pastor Steve Riggle of Grace Community Church, who received one of the subpoenas, clearly states that this is a bully’s attempt to silence the voice of dissent and prevent pastors from speaking out about cultural issues.
Initially, Evans declined to comment on pending litigation but Feldman later claimed that Mayor Parker was never informed about the subpoenas and as he never reviewed the requests before they were issued, neither had knowledge of the wording. Breitbart reports that Parker’s response was adamant about the city’s rights to request the materials and her intention to fight the issue, but on a later radio broadcast, she averred to changing her mind, conceding that the language in the subpoenas was too broad and needed clarification. Feldman said he would have worded it differently and found it “unfortunate” that so many have interpreted it as trespassing on religious liberty.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz lent his support to the pastors’ challenge to the subpoenas, calling the demands a “grotesque abuse of power.” ADF lawyer Erik Stanley reminds city council members that their role is as public servants not “Big Brother” and voices suspicions about the Houston mayor’s motives being like unto a witch-hunt to expose the pastors to public humiliation and point fingers at them as fanatics with an anti-gay agenda. Forbes documents both Constitutional and misuse of power issues with the subpoenas and calls for someone to stop the mayor’s attempts to bypass the democratic process and take control of reshaping society in accordance with her own agenda.
Texas Pastor Council’s executive director Dave Welch refuse to be cowed by the fear, intimidation and bully tactics employed by city officials and lawyers in trying to suppress religious freedom. The controversy has only stirred up the Houston pastors’ resolve to call the city’s bluff and stand by their religious beliefs and Constitutional rights. Moore stresses that the government does not own or control the dissemination of the truth of God’s Word and they will never surrender to such control now or ever. Pastors from all across Texas are organizing a “Don’t Mess With Texas Pulpit Sunday” as a show of solidarity against the force moves put on them by Parker’s control bid. Pastor Welch likens this culture war to the decisive Battle of San Jacinto in 1836, declaring that the growing trend for the LGBT community to try to limit Christians’ rights to practice their sincerely held religious beliefs regarding traditional families, when they do not line up with the homosexual viewpoint, ends here and now.
President of the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., Tony Perkins calls for all pastors to show their support for the beleaguered Houston ministers by challenging the government’s infringement on separation of church and state contrary to the Constitution. Fox News commentator, Todd Starnes agrees that Christians, whether lay or clergy, cannot afford to stay silent at this critical juncture and need to make the most of this opportunity to take a stand for biblical truth and religious liberty to prevent further abuses. The five pastors subpoenaed are of the same mind, refusing to comply with the city’s demands, fully aware that their civil disobedience could result in fines, jail time or both. Starnes declares that gays, lesbians and the H.E.R.O. bill are merely controversial distractions in a case that is really about the Constitution and religious freedom and a group of pastors who refuse to compromise their beliefs to satisfy government demands. Even if they face legal charges for doing so, in the spirit of the Apostles who regularly stirred up government and religious leaders who viewed them as a threat and threw them in jail or worse. Starnes concludes that he would be willing to join them behind bars to get the message across that the moral courage the Houston pastors are displaying is worthy of imitation, not only in terms of spiritual value but also in defense of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion.
by Tamara Christine Van Hooser
Fox News: Don’t Mess With Texas Pulpits
Breitbart: Big Brother in Texas
Fox News: Houston Demands
Breitbart: Houston Mayor Backs Off