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Houston sermon subpoenas unite Baptists

WASHINGTON (BP) — The city of Houston has managed to unite Baptists divided on other issues to speak with one voice on an application of their shared belief in religious freedom — that the government should not subpoena sermons.

Baptists on both sides of a divide from the days of the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) urged Houston Mayor Annise Parker in a letter Thursday (Oct. 16) to concede that the city’s subpoenas of sermons and other pastoral communications were wrong and will not be repeated. In a suit against the city, lawyers for Parker’s administration have issued broad subpoenas to four pastors and a ministry leader who oppose the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, known as HERO among the homosexual-transgender ordinance’s supporters.

City Attorney Dave Feldman, in another development, struck the word “sermons” from the subpoenas today (Oct. 17). But attorneys for the ministers maintained that nothing short of a complete withdrawal of the documents will suffice.

“The city of Houston still doesn’t get it,” Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Erik Stanley said. “It thinks that by changing nothing in its subpoenas other than to remove the word ‘sermons’ that it has solved the problem. That solves nothing.”

The subpoenas have elicited an outcry of opposition, including the letter from Baptists who once worked together before differences rooted in theology resulted in organizational division within the SBC beginning in the early 1990s. The letter’s signers included leaders of the SBC and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), and Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC) and the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT).

The Baptist leaders asked Parker and the city “to acknowledge that the issuing of these subpoenas is improper and unwarranted, in order to ensure that such will not happen again. Whatever a church or synagogue or mosque or any other religious body believes about marriage or sexuality, the preaching and teaching of those bodies should be outside the scope of government intimidation or oversight.”

“This is about more than ‘walking back’ a bad public relations move,” they said in the letter. “This is about something that is fundamental to basic, self-evident rights that are endowed not by government but by nature and nature’s God.”

The signers admitted they “disagree on many things” and “represent a broad coalition of Baptists from across the political and theological spectrum.”

As Baptists, however, they said they “have a long history of support for religious liberty and separation of church and state. On that, we stand united.

“Our ancestors stood in the colonial and revolutionary eras demanding the disestablishment of state churches, the end to state licensing of preachers, and the cessation of penalties for religious dissenters,” they said in the letter. “Our forebears — some of whom were imprisoned — petitioned for a First Amendment guarantee of religious liberty, for everyone, because we believe as Baptists that God alone is Lord of the conscience.”

Signing the letter were ERLC President Russell D. Moore, BJC Executive Director Brent Walker, SBC Executive Committee President Frank S. Page, CBF Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter, SBTC Executive Director Jim Richards, BGCT Executive Director David Hardage, SBTC President Jimmy Pritchard, BGCT President Jeff Johnson, Houston Baptist University President Robert Sloan and BGCT Christian Life Commission Director Gus Reyes.

Moore worked in conjunction with Walker to organize the coalition who signed the letter.

In a statement for Baptist Press, Moore said he could not “think of a time since the Southern Baptist controversy started when Baptists across the spectrum have cooperated on an issue in this way.”

“We have disagreements with one another on important matters, but we stand together for our Baptist heritage of religious liberty and separation of church and state,” Moore said. “I hope that Mayor Parker, and any other politician who wishes to violate these principles, will reconsider. Baptists have been reminding politicians of the importance of soul freedom for hundreds of years, whether from English jail cells or colonial courtrooms or revolutionary-era rallies. We stand with our forebears, and we won’t back down.”

Issued in September but not reported until Oct. 14, the subpoenas seek a wide range of communications by the pastors and ministry leader. They include not only emails and text messages but: “All speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition [for a referendum to overturn the ordinance], Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.”

The city threatened contempt of court charges — with the possibility of fines and/or jail time — if the pastors did not comply.

Many Southern Baptists in the Houston area have been involved in a diverse interdenominational effort first to defeat HERO and then to gain its repeal after the city council approved the measure in May. HERO added “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to a list of protected classifications, such as race, religion, sex and disability.

Foes of the ordinance are concerned it will violate the religious freedom of business owners and others who disagree with the measure. Also, opponents think it will make women and children vulnerable to sexual predators by permitting people to use public restrooms of the gender they identify with rather than those of their natural gender.

After enactment of the ordinance, opponents began a petition drive to place repeal of the ordinance before Houston voters. They submitted about 31,000 signatures — among more than 50,000 collected and nearly 14,000 more than required to qualify for a referendum. Feldman disqualified enough of the signatures, however, to prevent a vote on repeal. In response, HERO opponents filed suit, seeking to gain court approval for a referendum. A court hearing is scheduled for January.

Feldman’s revision of the subpoenas, meanwhile, was a preliminary response to ADF’s brief calling on the Harris County 152nd District Court to quash the subpoenas related to the lawsuit. In his brief, Feldman tried to justify the original demand, calling the requested material “relevant” because of the pastors’ involvement in the referendum process that is at the heart of the lawsuit against the city’s disqualifying the referendum.

“Even though the pastors are not parties in this lawsuit, the subpoenas still demand from them 17 different categories of information — information that encompasses speeches made by the pastors and private communications with their church members,” Stanley said in a written release. “As we have stated many times, the problem is the subpoenas themselves; they must be rescinded entirely. The city must respect the First Amendment and abandon its illegitimate mission to invade the private communications of pastors for the purpose of strong-arming them into silence in a lawsuit that concerns nothing more than the authenticity of citizen petitions.”

In related developments since news broke of the subpoenas:

— Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott urged Feldman in an Oct. 16 letter to withdraw the subpoenas. Abbott told Feldman, “Whether you intend it to be so or not, your action is a direct assault on the religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment,” Abbott wrote. “The people of Houston and their religious leaders must be absolutely secure in the knowledge that their religious affairs are beyond the reach of the government. Nothing short of an immediate reversal by your office will provide that security.”

— Parker, a lesbian who fervently promoted passage of the ordinance, indicated Oct. 15 after receiving the first wave of criticism that the city would change its approach on the subpoenas, but Feldman and she also seemed to fail to appreciate the religious liberty concerns. According to The Wall Street Journal, a city spokeswoman said Parker agreed with concerns about the subpoenas, which she said were issued by pro bono lawyers for Houston. Neither Parker nor Feldman “were aware the subpoenas had been issued until yesterday,” the spokeswoman said. “Both agree the original documents were overly broad. The city will move to narrow the scope during an upcoming court hearing. Feldman says the focus should be only on communications related to the HERO petition process.” Parker, however, tweeted Oct. 14, the previous day: “If the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game. Were instructions given on filling out anti-HERO petition?” At an Oct. 15 news conference, Feldman said the subpoenas had been inaccurately “construed” as an effort to infringe on religious freedom, according to the Southern Baptist TEXAN. “All of this hysteria about how we’re trying to infringe — all because of the used of the word ‘sermon’ — is really ridiculous,” Feldman said.

— The ERLC sent an action alert Oct. 15 to more than 8,000 pastors and other constituents seeking to help them to lead their churches in response to the Houston situation and to use the Twitter hashtag #4Houston5. The alert is available online at http://erlc.com/article/4houston5-stand-with-houston-pastors.

    About the Author

  • Tom Strode & Bonnie Pritchett

    Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service. Bonnie Pritchett is a correspondent for the Southern Baptist TEXAN (www.texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

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