Pastors and their sermons have moved one step closer to protection under Texas law. State Senator Joan Huffman (R-Houston) received unanimous approval for Senate Bill 2048, a bill necessitated by the actions of Mayor Annise Parker when she issued subpoenas to various local pastors related to her Houston Equal Rights ordinance (“HERO”).
In mid-October, Breitbart Texas reported then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott sent a letter to Houston City Attorney David Feldman, asking him to immediately withdraw subpoenas served to several Houston-area ministers. The subpoenas sought production of sermons, private notes, and other information. Abbott called the action a “direct assault on the religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment.”
A group of pastors were fighting efforts by the City of Houston to subpoena their sermons, as well as private communications with church members. The subpoenas were related to litigation from a petition to repeal Mayor Annise Parker’s controversial Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. Breitbart Texas reported that among other concerns, the ordinance was criticized for allowing transgendered men inside women’s restrooms. Mayor Parker is Houston’s first openly gay mayor.
Opponents of the ordinance collected nearly 50,000 signatures to repeal the measure. Although only 17,269 signatures were required, the City Attorney invalidated the signatures. Opponents of the ordinance promised, and delivered, a legal battle. The subpoenas were issued as part of this litigation.
In his admonition of Mayor Parker, Abbott made clear that the discovery process “is not a license for government officials to inquire into religious affairs.” He said that “government officials must exercise the utmost care when our work touches on religious matters. If we err, it must be on the side of preserving the autonomy of religious institutions and the liberty of religious believers.”
“Your aggressive and invasive subpoenas show no regard for the very serious First Amendment considerations at stake,” Abbott chastised City Attorney Feldman, challenging him to “demonstrate the City’s commitment to religious liberty and to true diversity of belief by unilaterally withdrawing these subpoenas immediately.”
“I’m proud to stand with the pastors,” said Cruz. “Religious liberty is the very first protection in the Bill of Rights, the foundation of all our liberties. The City of Houston’s subpoenas demanding that pastors provide the government with copies of their sermons is both shocking and shameful. For far too long, the federal government has led an assault against religious liberty, and now, sadly, my hometown of Houston is joining the fight. This is wrong. It’s unbefitting of Texans, and it’s un-American.”
The Senator also criticized the subpoenas as a “grotesque abuse of power” by the city government.
Opponents of the ordinance lost their case before a Democratic district court judge in Harris County, Texas. They vow to appeal the ruling.
Lana Shadwick is a contributing writer and legal analyst for Breitbart Texas. Follow her on Twitter @LanaShadwick2