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Religious Liberty Under Attack as City of Houston Subpoenas Church Sermons

Religious Liberty Under Attack as City of Houston Subpoenas Church Sermons

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AUSTIN, Texas — The battle over Houston’s non-discrimination ordinance has moved from the ballot box to the church pulpit, as a group of pastors fights efforts by the city to subpoena their sermons and private communications with church members.

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The law, passed last June, was criticized because it could be used to allow men to use women’s bathrooms, among other objections. Opponents to the law had collected more than 50,000 signatures to place a repeal measure on the ballot this November, far more than the 17,269 required. However, the City of Houston moved to invalidate the majority of the signatures, arguing that some the petition gatherers had not met the legal requirements, thereby invalidating the signatures they gathered. Opponents of the law filed suit, and the city responded by issuing subpoenas against several Houston-area pastors, who were not parties to the lawsuit. According to a report by Todd Starnes for Fox News, the subpoenas seek any speeches, sermons, or communications with church members relating to homosexuality, gender identity, or Houston Mayor Annise Parker, the city’s first open lesbian to hold that office.

The pastors, whose churches were a part of a coalition of about 400 Houston area churches opposing the ordinance, are represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a law firm that represents parties in cases involving religious liberty. In a statement on their website, ADF attorneys characterized the subpoenas as “illegitimately demanding that the pastors, who are not party to the lawsuit, turn over their constitutionally protected sermons and other communications simply so the city can see if the pastors have ever opposed or criticized the city.” 

“City council members are supposed to be public servants, not ‘Big Brother’ overlords who will tolerate no dissent or challenge,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley. “In this case, they have embarked upon a witch-hunt, and we are asking the court to put a stop to it.” ADF Litigation Counsel Christiana Holcomb added, “The city’s subpoena of sermons and other pastoral communications is both needless and unprecedented. The city council and its attorneys are engaging in an inquisition designed to stifle any critique of its actions. Political and social commentary is not a crime; it is protected by the First Amendment.”

On behalf of the pastors, ADF filed a Motion to Quash the Subpoenas, arguing that the subpoenas did not satisfy the requirements under Texas law for discovery requests, because they were “not reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence,” were”overly broad, irrelevant, and cause undue burden or harassment,” as well as demanding materials that were protected by the First Amendment and attorney-client privilege and other privileges.

Paul Bettencourt, former Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector and the Republican candidate for State Senate District 7 (replacing Dan Patrick, who is running for Lieutenant Governor), was among many who were outraged by the city’s subpoenas. “Mayor Parker and her leftist City Attorney Feldman are on a big government attack of pastors’ free speech that would make George Orwell proud!  Issuing subpoenas for sermons from pastors, not plaintiffs in a lawsuit, shows this City Administration to be the most anti-religious, anti-free speech in Houston’s history.”

Joe Slovacek, a prominent area attorney and Harris County Republican Party Treasurer pointed out that the city has another way to get the content of these sermons without compelling them through a subpoena. “If the Houston City Attorney reads the sermons, maybe he will have a change of heart. The sermons are online and readily available to all who wish to view them.”

Starnes also reported that he tried to get a comment from the city explaining why they wanted to inspect the sermons, but Janice Evans, the mayor’s director of communications, rebuffed him, saying, “We don’t comment on litigation.” ADF attorney Stanley told Starnes that he believed the mayor’s goal was to shine a public spotlight on the pastors’ sermons and shame them as “anti-gay bigots.” 

For now, the pastors who received the subpoenas are confident they will succeed and remain defiant in the face of the city’s subpoenas. Reverend Dave Welch, executive director of the Texas Pastor Council, said he would not be intimidated by the mayor. “We’re not afraid of this bully,” he said. Steve Riggle, the senior pastor of Grace Community Church, had a similar response. “This is an attempt to chill pastors from speaking to the cultural issues of the day,” Riggle said. “The mayor would like to silence our voice. She’s a bully.”

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