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Subpoenas aside, religious liberty warnings remain

HOUSTON (BP) — Though the threat of subpoena has been lifted against five Houston ministers, warnings continue of a broader threat to religious liberty — warnings likely to abound in a Nov. 2 “I Stand Sunday” simulcast originating from Houston.

“If we have a single person, or two, who have positions of authority who can take away the voting rights of a million, we no longer live in a constitutional republic,” Dave Welch, one of the subpoenaed ministers, said on a local radio show Oct. 30.

Welch was referring to a petition drive disqualified by city attorney Dave Feldman that would allow voters to repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, called HERO among its supporters. The ordinance, adopted by the city council in May, provides civil rights protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Welch, executive director of the Houston Area Pastor Council, said no apology has been given by Mayor Annise Parker for the subpoenas.

“They didn’t make any effort to reach out to the five who had been subpoenaed and say, ‘Oh, we’re sorry. We shouldn’t have done this,'” Welch said on the radio show.

A lawsuit has been filed charging Feldman with violating the city charter by dismissing thousands of signatures on the repeal initiative — signatures that already had been certified by city secretary Anna Russell.

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

If the legal action against the city fails to produce a referendum vote on the ordinance, the city charter does not allow for a second petition. The law will go into effect.

The subpoenas, as defended by Mayor Annise Parker and Feldman, were part of the city’s legal preparations for the lawsuit.

Parker, in an Oct. 29 news conference announcing the withdrawal of the subpoenas, acknowledged the legal maneuver was overly broad yet also “legal and valid and appropriate.”

“It is extremely important to me to protect our Equal Rights Ordinance,” she Parker, a lesbian who has championed the ordinance.

“I don’t want to have a national debate about freedom of religion,” Parker said, “when my whole purpose is to defend a strong and wonderful and appropriate city ordinance against local attack.”

Parker reversed course on the subpoenas after a storm of national protests and two meetings Oct. 28 with pastor delegations.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Andy Taylor, called Parker’s announcement a “head fake,” the Houston Chronicle reported. Parker should drop the city’s defense of the lawsuit and put the ordinance to a vote, Taylor said.

“The truth is, she’s using this litigation to try to squelch the voting rights of over a million well-intentioned voters here in the city of Houston,” Taylor said. “It’s very simple why we filed a lawsuit: Because they won’t do what the city constitutional charter requires them to do.”

Gary Lebetter, editor in chief of the Southern Baptist TEXAN, noted in an editorial, “Houston’s mayor is one of our current crop of liberal politicians who sincerely do not understand religious liberty. To these leaders, we have the freedom to worship in the privacy of our homes and church buildings, but our freedom to live as transformed people in our weekday life is more inconvenient to a pluralistic culture. Freedom of worship makes more sense to them than actual religious freedom.

“It seems we have been Mirandized — read our rights.”

Foes of the Houston ordinance have voiced concern that it will violate the religious freedom of business owners and others who disagree with the measure’s expanded classifications. Also, opponents say 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.

Among the subpoenaed pastors is Khanh Huynh, senior pastor of Vietnamese Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation. See today’s BP proile.

The I Stand Sunday simulcast (http://istandsunday.com) is slated to begin at 6 p.m. Central time, originating from Grace Community Church, 14505 Gulf Freeway in Houston. Sponsored by the Family Research Council based in Washington, D.C., featured speakers will include Huynh; Arkansas pastor Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, now a Fox TV host; Ed Young, a former SBC president and longtime pastor of Houston’s Second Baptist Church; “Duck Dynasty” personality Phil Robertson; and Fox News commentator Todd Starnes.

Floyd, in an Oct. 29 statement to Baptist Press, said, “We look forward to holding high the necessity of religious liberty in our nation as well as the desperate need for revival in the church and spiritual awakening in America.”

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