The scandal over the subpoenas issued to several Houston-area Christian pastors continues, even after the city refiled legal documents, removing the word “sermons” from the demand. They have clearly not removed the scandal from their city, and from the administration of Mayor Annise Parker. As the mayor’s own comments make abundantly clear, she stands at the center of the scandal.
When news broke earlier this week that the attorneys working for the City of Houston had issued subpoenas to pastors for sermons, I was fairly certain that some mistake had been made. When the actual text of the subpoena came to me, I could hardly believe my eyes. Here was a legal demand, sent to Christian pastors in the name of one of America’s largest cities, to surrender “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO (an anti-discrimination ordinance), the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.”
That subpoena is nothing less than ruthless thuggery, exercised by an elected public servant and her city attorney. And that thuggery has been done in the name of the people of Houston, Texas.
The controversy started when Mayor Parker, often described as the first openly gay mayor of a major American city, led the effort to adopt an anti-discrimination law that, among other things, allows transgender persons to file a complaint and bring charges if they are denied access to a bathroom. Several Houston-area pastors were involved in an effort to rescind the ordinance. They participated in a petition drive that would have put the question before voters, mobilizing their congregations on the issue. They were able to get more than the required number of signatures on the petition, but the city attorney ruled many of the signatures invalid due to technicalities. The city attorney intervened after the appropriate city official had already certified the petitions as adequate. This set the stage for the lawsuit, and the lawsuit set the stage for the subpoenas.
The subpoenas set the stage for the current controversy. The very fact that the subpoenas were issued at all is scandal enough — none of the pastors is even party to the lawsuit. But the actual wording of the subpoenas is draconian — almost unbelievable. The attorneys working for the city demanded all sermons “prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession” on matters that included, not only the mayor and the ordinance, but homosexuality and gender identity.
This is a breathtaking violation of religious liberty — and it is political thuggery at its worst. Make no mistake: A major American city has subpoenaed the sermons of Christian pastors. And those sermons were to include anything that touched on homosexuality or gender identity.
The scandal that erupted brought, as expected, efforts on the part of the mayor and the city attorney to dismiss and to distance themselves from the subpoenas. First, the mayor declared that the subpoenas had actually been prepared, not by the city attorney’s office, but by outside lawyers working pro bono for the city. That is a meaningless distinction, since the fact remains that the subpoenas were issued on behalf of the city. Next, the mayor acknowledged that the language of the subpoena was “overly broad.”
“There’s no question the wording was overly broad,” Mayor Parker said, “But I also think there was some deliberate misinterpretation on the other side.”
This led New York magazine reporter Katie Zavadaski to describe criticisms of the mayor as “hysterical allegations.” But it is the mayor and the city attorney who are confusing the facts here, and it is the same two leaders who cannot get their stories straight.
At 12:21 a.m. on October 15, Mayor Parker posted the following on Twitter: “Always amazed at how little fact checking is done by folks who like to hit the retweet button.”
But, less than an hour later, Mayor Parker posted this: “If the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game.” Fair game? Do the residents of Houston, Texas have any idea what their mayor is doing in their name? Do chills not run down the spines of Houstonians when they are told that sermons deemed by their own mayor to be political are “fair game” and when the subpoenaed sermons included anything that touched on homosexuality and gender identity?
This is one of those situations that looks worse the more you look into it.
The city attorney, David Feldman, also sent very ominous signals. He seemed to agree that the language of the subpoenas had constituted an over-reach, but he had also defended the subpoenas as legitimate. On Tuesday he told reporters: “If someone is speaking from the pulpit and it’s political speech, then it’s not going to be protected.”
Thus speaketh the city attorney of Houston Texas. You have been warned.
Houston’s mayor and city attorney stalwartly defend their right to demand that pastors surrender their pulpit messages.
On Friday, city officials announced that papers had been refiled to avoid use of the word “sermon.” But the change in no way removes the offense, nor does it even exempt sermons from the subpoena. As Mike Morris of the Houston Chronicle reported earlier today: “Though the subpoena’s new wording removes any mention of ‘sermons’ — a reference that created a firestorm among Christian conservative groups and politicians, including Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who accused Parker of trying ‘to silence the church’ — the mayor acknowledged the new subpoenas do not explicitly preclude sermons from being produced.”
Once again, you have been warned.
The debacle in Houston can indeed be a catalyst for “hysterical allegations.” No ministers are yet in jail. No pulpit has been silenced. No church doors have been bolted shut.
But the reality is hysterical enough. This is the kind of intimidation that would be expected somewhere in secular Europe or perhaps in the former Soviet Bloc. But we are talking here about Houston, Texas.
This is the kind of scandal that would lead most elected officials to backtrack like crazy, but Mayor Annise Parker is standing her ground, even as she tries to escape the heat by a mere change in the coercive language. What she is doing amounts to raw political intimidation.
At this point, it is five Houston pastors who are feeling the heat. But these subpoenas stand as a direct warning to every pastor, rabbi, minister, priest, and imam in America. You or I could be next.
This is how religious liberty dies. Liberties die by a thousand cuts. An intimidating letter here, a subpoena there, a warning in yet another place. The message is simple and easily understood. Be quiet or risk trouble.
But the subpoenas in Houston now alert us all to the fact that trouble is now inescapable.
Will the people of Houston stand idly by as this thuggery is done in their own name? When the mayor of their city refers to sermons as “fair game?”
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Katherine Driessen, “City Officials Try to Distance Themselves from Sermon Subpoenas,” Houston Chronicle, Wednesday, October 15, 2014. http://www.chron.com/news/politics/houston/article/City-officials-try-to-distance-themselves-from-5825439.php
Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Houston Subpoenas Pastors’ Sermons in Gay Rights Ordinance Case,” Religion News Service, Tuesday, October 14, 2014. http://www.religionnews.com/2014/10/14/houston-subpoenas-pastors-sermons-equal-rights-ordinance-case-prompting-outcry/
Mike Morris, “Mayor Parker Revises, Narrows, Sermon Subpoena Request,” Houston Chronicle, Friday, October 17, 2014. http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/Mayor-Parker-to-revise-narrow-subpoena-request-5829455.php