HOUSTON (BP) — Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott called on Houston city attorney Dave Feldman Oct. 16 to withdraw subpoenas requiring five pastors to submit their sermons to his office in regard to litigation against a new Houston Equal Rights Ordinance’s protections based on sexual orientation.
The pastors are part of a petition effort to repeal the ordinance, known as HERO among its supporters.
“Your aggressive and invasive subpoenas,” Abbott wrote in the letter addressed to Feldman, “show no regard for the very serious First Amendment considerations at stake.”
In a news conference Oct. 15, Wednesday, Houston Mayor Annise Parker and Feldman admitted the wording of the subpoenas was “overly broad” but claimed they had no knowledge of the documents before Tuesday because the subpoenas had been prepared and issued in September by a law firm assisting in the litigation.
But that statement does not ring true for Erik Stanley, an Alliance Defending Freedom attorney representing the five pastors. It is disconcerting that attorneys for three of Houston’s most powerful law firms did not consider the First Amendment implications of the subpoenas, Stanley noted.
“The fact that it did not occur to them tells us their view of the law,” Stanley told the Southern Baptist TEXAN newsjournal.
Abbott, in writing to Feldman, stated, “These lawyers acted in the city’s name, and you are responsible for their actions.”
Stanley filed a brief with the Harris County District Court Oct. 10 asking that the subpoenas be quashed. The request would give the pastors a reprieve from the threat of fines or imprisonment for contempt of court for non-compliance.
Critics nationwide called the subpoenas a “fishing expedition” that will have a chilling effect on anyone seeking redress with city hall. And the move illustrates a key objection members of the No UNequal Rights Coalition have with the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance — government intrusion into the life and work of the local church.
The ordinance, passed in May, gives protected status to individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. It requires public accommodations be made for individuals based on their gender identity, not biology. Although churches are exempt from the law, critics charge it would force para-church organizations, businesses and individuals to violate their religious convictions in accommodating the law. Parker, a lesbian, championed the ordinance saying its passage was deeply personal.
One of the subpoenaed pastors, Dave Welch, executive director of the Houston Area Pastor Council, told the TEXAN that the city’s action “certainly serves as another example of the disregard the Parker administration has for the rule of law, and we knew that the ordinance was placing the punitive power of government over the religious beliefs of citizens, business owners, property owners and eventually the church.”
Included among the 17 categories of requested material in the subpoena is “all speeches, presentations or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by or approved by you or in your possession.”
Another request calls for “all communications with members of your congregation regarding HERO or the Petition.”
The subpoenaed pastors — Welch, Steve Riggle of Grace Community Church, Khanh Huynh of Vietnamese Baptist Church, Magda Hermida of Magda Hermida Ministries and Hernan Castano of Rios de Aceite — are not plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the city but have been outspoken in their opposition to the ordinance as members of the No UNequal Rights Coalition.
News of the subpoenaed sermons broke Tuesday morning. Within 24 hours nationwide, blowback began to reverberate in city hall. In the Wednesday press conference Parker and Feldman only admitted the subpoenas were poorly written and even blamed their critics for creating the controversy.
When asked why the city attorney she hired deemed it necessary to subpoena pastors’ sermons, Parker chuckled and dismissively answered the question.
“Let me just say that one word in a very long legal document — which I know nothing about and would never have read — and I’m vilified coast to coast. It’s a normal day at the office for me,” she said.
Parker accused her detractors of misinterpreting the intent of the subpoenas.
Although she claimed ignorance about the subpoenas, a day earlier she posted on her Twitter feed, “If the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game. Were instructions given on filling out anti-HERO petition?”
Her tweet spurred nearly 300 responses from across the nation and political divide. Most disagreed adamantly with the ideology behind her post.
“Using the pulpit for politics is not only allowed, it’s the foundation of our nation! Ever heard of ‘abolitionists?'” one post read. Another: “I’m as dyed-in-the-wool-liberal, secular, LGBT-loving as they come, and I think you may have crossed a line there.”
At the news conference, Feldman said the court order for sermons has been “construed” as an effort to infringe on religious liberties.
“All of this hysteria about how we’re trying to infringe — all because of the use of the word ‘sermon’ — is really ridiculous.”
Abbott, however, noted in his letter to Feldman, “In good faith, I hope you merely failed to anticipate how inappropriately aggressive your lawyers would be. Many, however, believe your actions reflect the city government’s hostility to religious beliefs that do not align with the city policies.”
Stanley called the city administrators’ actions “political retribution and bullying.”
The pastors targeted by the subpoenas are part of a racially diverse association of pastors united in their effort to repeal the ordinance. Unable to stop its passage by city council in May, the No UNequal Rights Coalition was formed to organize a referendum to put the ordinance to a vote by the city.
More than 50,000 signatures were gathered in the petition drive — far more than the 17,269 needed to put the issue on the November ballot. The requisite number of signatures was certified by City Secretary Anna Russell. But three days later, with only hours left in the city’s deadline for certifying the petitions, Feldman summarily disqualified thousands of signatures alleging they did not meet city charter standards.
The coalition sued the city demanding Russell’s certification protocol be followed. The case goes to trial in January. The subpoenaed sermons and pastor-church member communications are part of the city’s discovery proceedings.
Outcry regarding the “overreach” has come from across the nation. Republican Texas Senator Ted Cruz scheduled a rally and press conference Thursday at Houston’s First Baptist Church. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council initiated a petition drive as a show of support for the pastors. Local and national talk radio hosts railed against the mayor and city attorney.
Nationally syndicated conservative radio talk show host Sean Hannity even offered to pay bail for any pastor jailed for failing to comply with the subpoena.
Southern Baptist leadership called on evangelical Christians to respond en masse.
Jason Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., wrote in his blog post, “My concern is whether or not Christians will persist in having the courage of their convictions. This won’t be the last time the church encounters intimidation — for we are assured that all who desire godliness in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.”
Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell D. Moore noted in a news release, “A government has no business using subpoena power to intimidate or bully the preaching and instruction of any church, any synagogue, any mosque, or any other place of worship.”
Moore challenged pastors across the country to preach about or at least address the issue from the pulpit and for all Christians to pray and educate themselves about the perils of losing religious liberties.
“The separation of church and state means that we will render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and we will,” Moore stated. “But the preaching of the church of God does not belong to Caesar, and we will not hand it over to him. Not now. Not ever.”