The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—legacy of a Virginia Baptist preacher named John Leland–is clear to anyone who’s studied American history:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…
At least it’s clear to most Americans. Even a few judges and politicians continue to claim familiarity with it. But apparently not the City Council of Houston, TX. They’re hauling several local pastors into court for daring to voice opposition in their sermons to a recently passed city ordinance.
Here’s what happened. Mayor Annise Parker, the first openly lesbian mayor of a major U.S. city (her sexual orientation is important only because she made it important, as the subpoena below points out), recently led the City Council to adopt an ordinance that treats homosexuals, transgendered people and others “confused” about their sexual identity as a privileged class.They may now use whichever public restroom they want, male or female. I’m a little fuzzy what the ordinance’s language actually means but in today’s culture of gender politics fuzzy language is a plus because it provides more opportunities for offense or, better, litigation.
Parents were outraged, sensibly pointing out that sexual predators could assume a suitable level of “gender confusion” in order to gain access to whichever restroom a child of the opposite sex might be in. A group of five local pastors jumped into the fray as a petition drive to reverse the ordinance gathered steam.
In short order, over 50,000 signatures were collected and turned over to city hall. And that’s when things got strange. Houston’s political leadership were shocked that common people like parents who protect their children and preachers who believe their Bible could doubt their wisdom. When the City Clerk validated the petition the mayor and her legal team stepped in and disqualified enough of the signatures to invalidate it.
The parents filed a lawsuit to overturn the petition’s disqualification. The mayor and her attorneys then decided to play hardball. Their response to the lawsuit identified the five pastors as targets even though the First Amendment guarantees religious freedom. Even though the five pastors weren’t even legal parties to the parents’ lawsuit. Even though the City Council has no jurisdiction to challenge political stands ministers take from their pulpits because the obligations of non-profit entities like churches are to state or federal authorities and not to municipalities.
Here’s some of the text of the subpoena received by Pastor Steve Riggles. It’s in two sections. The first is the list of documents the city’s attorneys are demanding from him:
“Document” and “documents,” mean all documents and tangible things, in the broadest sense allowed by Rule 192.3(b) and comment 2 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, and include, but are not limited to, any writings, drawings, graphs, charts, photographs, phonograph records, tape recordings, notes, diaries, calendars, checkbooks, books, papers, accounts, electronic or videotape recordings, and any computer-generated, computer-stored, or electronically-stored matter that constitute or contain matters relevant to the subject matter of this lawsuit. The terms include, but are not limited to, emails, instant messages, text messages, or other responsive data or information that exists in electronic or magnetic form, and such responsive data should be produced pursuant to Rule 196.4 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure.
“Communications” means every direct or indirect disclosure, receipt, transfer, or exchange of information, inquiry or opinion, however made, whether oral, visual, in writing or otherwise, including without limitation any conversation or discussion by means of letter, note, package, invoice, statement, notice, memorandum, inter-office correspondence, telephone, telegraph, email, telex, telecopies, text message, instant message, cable communicating data processors, or some other electronic or other medium.
The Required Documents are listed next. It’s a long, detailed list. I’ll just show the one that’s generated so much publicity:
All speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO [Houston Equal Rights Ordinance], the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.
The purpose of the subpoena is clear to anyone not working for the mayor’s office. It’s to intimidate and silence any voice of dissent—especially religious dissent—to the city’s agenda.
At any rate, in late breaking news last night the mayor backed down. The pastors’ sermons would not be part of the subpoena after all. She’d listened to her critics and now agreed with them that sermons should be exempt from legal action. Or maybe her media people saw the public train wreck the subpoenas were becoming for her administration. Or she came to her senses. Or she repented. Or her lawyers glanced at the Constitution.
One can only hope.
No one who’s paying attention should believe this ends it. Houston’s City Council will back off for a period of time, adjust their tactics and figure out a less public way to punish those pastors and others who dare speak out not just against HERO (the acronym stands for Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance—a useful example of politicized language) but also against the moral assumptions behind it. Unless they’re voted out of office or the majority of Houstonians rise up and refuse to let it happen, the council will succeed. The momentum of modern American life seems to be in their favor.
Churches and ministers everywhere should take notice. What almost happened in Houston is going on around the country. As our nation continues to move not just in a secular direction but in one virulently anti-Christian, we in evangelical churches had better be prepared. Our faith and witness are going to cost us in the coming years.