AUSTIN (BP) — Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed legislation Sunday (May 21) that prohibits Texas government agencies from subpoenaing the sermons of religious leaders.
In a ceremony choreographed to highlight the bill’s benefactors Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick signed the bill surrounded by Houston area clergy during the May 21 worship service at Grace Church, Woodlands, Texas.
Four of the five Houston pastors whose sermons became the target of a sweeping 2014 subpoena “fishing expedition” by City of Houston attorneys and then-Mayor Annise Parker joined the signing ceremony. In messages emphasizing spiritual and political courage, Abbott and Patrick also spoke of their Christian faith before signing the legislation that gives pastors protection from future incursions by the government into Texas houses of worship.
“We’re grateful for the bill,” Steve Riggle, one of the subpoenaed pastors, told Abbott and Patrick. “Thank you for that backup. We never thought we’d need that but this is a crazy day. We never thought we’d have to define ‘men’ and ‘women’ either but here we are.”
Whether or not men who identified as women could use women’s public restrooms, locker rooms and showers — and vice versa — became the key issue during the 2014 fight to repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). A diverse contingent of Houston pastors had rallied their congregations, unsuccessfully, to fight passage of the ordinance that gave protected class status to gays, lesbians and transgender persons, including access to public restrooms according to gender identity, not biological sex.
Parker and then-City Attorney David Feldman thwarted a repeal effort and the pastors sued. During the pre-trial investigations, attorneys representing the city served the subpoenas which requested material in 17 categories including “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.”
The pastors refused to relinquish the sermons. The city balked and withdrew the subpoenas but not before the incident gained national attention as an apparent example of government overreach and an affront to First Amendment liberties.
“You are freedom fighters,” Abbott told the congregation at Grace Church, Woodlands, a non-denominational multi-site church. “You realized that when subpoenas were issued on your own pastor, when you had to fight against your own government right here in Houston for your freedom — your freedom of religion,” Abbott said.
The controversy sparked a national furor and pleas from Houston’s gay-affirming pastors before Parker and city attorneys withdrew the subpoenas. But the fact that they had been issued at all disturbed religious liberty proponents.
Senate Bill 24, authored by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, protects clergy from government overreach in civil investigations. No governmental agency can force religious leaders to turn over their sermons or compel clergy to testify about their sermons according to the bill.
“You will be shielded from any other efforts from any other government official anywhere in the state of Texas from having subpoenas trying to pry into what you are doing here in your churches,” Abbott said.
Patrick cited several Bible verses to encourage the congregation to seek God’s wisdom and then ask for the courage to act upon it.
A small band of protestors stood at the church driveway holding signs that read, “Church in state is unpatriotic,” and “God and politix [sic] don’t mix.” Critics questioned the propriety of mixing a church service with a bill signing ceremony. But governors and presidents often take the occasion of bill signing to surround themselves with the people the bill is drafted to help.
“Freedom of religion is the most sacred of our rights — it is what makes us America and is what gave our nation its start,” said Abbott in a statement following the signing. “Efforts to erode religious liberty are a threat to all liberty, and our religious leaders must be absolutely secure in the knowledge that religious freedom is beyond the reach of government. I am proud to sign this bill to shield our pastors’ sermons from subpoena and their right to speak freely about their faith.”