Two Texas state senators have pre-filed a bill which is intended to protect the religious liberty and First Amendment freedoms of clergy in the Lone Star State. Pastors have been under attack in Texas and their sermons sought to be compelled during litigation by a government unit. The pastors were in a fight over a transgender bathroom ordinance at the time they were subpoened.
Texas State Senators Joan Huffman (R-Houston) and Kelly Hancock (R-Richland Hills) have filed the bill that is intended to protect religious leaders from production of a written copy or audio or video recording of their sermons. The bill relates to holding their sermons privileged from disclosure to a governmental entity.
In 2014, Breitbart Texas reported that a group of pastors in Houston were fighting efforts by the city to subpoena their sermons and their private communications with church members. The subpoenas were related to litigation from a petition to repeal openly gay Mayor Annise Parker’s controversial Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (“HERO”). Breitbart Texas reported that among other concerns, the ordinance was criticized for allowing men in women’s restrooms. Opponents collected nearly 50,000 signatures to repeal the measure. Although only 17,269 signatures were required, the City Attorney invalidated the signatures and opponents promised a legal battle. The subpoenas were issued as part of the litigation.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott sent a letter warning City Attorney David Feldman that Houstonians and their religious leaders “must be absolutely secure in the knowledge that their religious affairs are beyond the reach of the government.” He wrote “Nothing short of an immediate reversal by your office will provide that security. I call on you to withdraw the subpoenas without further delay.”
Breitbart Texas was at the press conference when Senator Ted Cruz gathered with Houston area pastors to address the City of Houston and Mayor Parker’s “unchecked government power” and “assault on religious liberty.” The event attracted a large press corps after the City received national attention after issuing subpoenas to five Houston-area pastors.
A “governmental unit” as the bill applies to includes the state and its agencies, and any political subdivision of the states such as city, counties, school districts, junior college districts, water control and improvement districts, emergency service organizations, and other subdivisions. Any institution, agency, or organ of goverment that is derived from the Texas Constitution or laws passed by the Texas Legislature is included.
“One of my top priorities is to protect our First Amendment right to religious liberty, something we particularly treasure during the holiday season. SB24 will give pastors critical protection from forced testimony and shield sermons from government subpoena power,” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said in a released statement obtained by Breitbart Texas.
The act would be effective immediately upon its passage if it receives a vote of two-third of all the members elected to each house, or if not immediately effective – September 1, 2017.
Breitbart Texas contacted Rev. Dave Welch, president of Texas Pastor Council. He responded in an email:
“Speaking on behalf of the pastors who were actually subpoenaed for seventeen different categories of materials and communications, I am very curious as to why neither sponsoring Senator of SB 24 bothered talking to us or our legal counsel about what might be needed. This bill dealing only with sermons is very limited. Our subpoenas included, ‘All communications with members of your congregation regarding HERO or the Petition’ (emphasis added). The definition of ‘communications’ was far beyond sermons, even including “exchange of …opinion,’ and trampled on myriad First Amendment rights of pastors.
We would be happy to assist legislators to craft bills that effectively address these threats. Our pastors are already protected by the God who called them to pulpit ministry, the United States Constitution and the courage that compels them to refuse to be intimidated or silenced by any threats from any source, including those who would abuse public office in such a way.”