The city of Houston has issued subpoenas demanding a group of local pastors turnover any sermons dealing with homosexuality, gender identity or Annise Parker, the city’s openly lesbian mayor.
The subpoenas were issued to pastors who have been vocal in opposition to the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), a measure that deals with gender identity and sexual discrimination.
The purpose of the ordinance is to ban discrimination among businesses that serve the public and private employers in housing or city employment and city contracting. According to the Houston Chronicle, religious institutions are exempt, but it appears there may be another conflict over whether or not it should have passed.
The city council approved the law in June, but a petition by Houston residents opposed to HERO would repeal the ordinance. The petition demanded the law be added to the this Fall’s ballot to be put to a vote. Already, the petition has obtained over 50,000 signatures, more than the 17,269 required to get a repeal referendum on the ballot.
Mayor Annise Parker had led support for HERO, a centerpiece of her administration. Despite the signatures garnered, in August she and the city attorney refused to certify the petition, throwing out the petition over alleged irregularities. Opponents were still hoping to repeal the ordinance through a repeal initiative, claiming the city’s attorney determined wrongly they had not gathered enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.
The pastors who received the subpoena were not part of the lawsuit that claimed the petition had been wrongly handled. However, they were part of a coalition of some 400 Houston-area churches that opposed the ordinance. The coalition is not a single faith group but bridges religious boundaries, including everything from Southern Baptist to non-denominational.
The city demanded all public communication regarding the petition, the mayor, and the ordinance from these pastors. Thus, the state is in essence stating that their teachings, sermons, and emails influenced the city’s decision to create the petition by giving moral and political commentary to the ordinance.
But wouldn’t that be infringing on freedom of speech? The freedom to give moral, political, and social commentary is protected by the first amendment.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
In colonial days, most political news and announcements were made from the pulpits of churches. When the call for independence from Great Britain went out, it was announced from the pulpits. In numerous instances, the local pastor led his people into the Revolutionary War. It is obvious throughout history that the local pastor does have great influence.
The founding fathers were fleeing Europe, where monarchies and bureaucracies either controlled or created their own churches. The clergy who would speak favorably to their congregations of their political decisions could be appointed and bought. The power to control and use religion as a political force of power is tantalizing. This corruption and tyranny are what was surely feared could continue in our country.
Among those slapped with a subpoena is Steve Riggle, the senior pastor of Grace Community Church. Like many others, he claims Mayor Annise Parker was trying to silence their voice.
“This is an attempt to chill pastors from speaking to the cultural issues of the day. The mayor would like to silence our voice. She’s a bully.”
Many of the pastors continue to affirm their first amendment rights and are planning to stand firm, calling others to join. Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, said pastors around the nation should rally around the Houston ministers.
“Pastors need to step forward and challenge this across the country. I’d like to see literally thousands of pastors after they read this story begin to challenge government authorities – to dare them to come into their churches and demand their sermons.”
It is very uncertain at this point what will happen between the group of local pastors who were subpoenaed and the city of Houston over the LGBT equal rights ordinance. It’s also questionable whether it will make it to the ballot. Yet, it is certain that these pastors don’t want state control over their churches.
Do you think the city of Houston’s unusual action against these pastors violates their first amendment rights?