HOUSTON, October 15, 2014 – The city of Houston has issued subpoenas to a group of local pastors demanding that they turn over all sermons and communications that pertain to the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, a measure that was approved by the city council this past June. The ordinance, which is also commonly referred to as the “bathroom bill” is a set of non-discrimination laws that specifically aim to protect transgender rights.
Under these subpoenas, pastors must hand over any sermons that have dealt with homosexuality, gender identity or Annise Parker, the city’s first openly gay mayor. Pastors who fail to comply with the demands could be held in contempt of court.
Christina Halcomb, an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the national law firm that is representing the five Houston pastors, stated, “The city’s subpoena of sermons and other pastoral communications is both needless and unprecedented.” Halcomb continued stating, “The city council and its attorneys are engaging in an inquisition designed to stifle any critique of its actions.”
ADF filed a motion to stop the subpoenas claiming the motions are “overbroad, unduly burdensome, harassing, and vexatious.”
The non-discrimination laws were implemented to, among other things, allow men to use ladies restrooms and vice versa. The ordinance was met with fierce opposition and a petition that according the Houston Chronicle reportedly garnered over 50,000 signatures, a number that far surpassed the 17,269 required to put a referendum on the ballot. However, the petition was thrown out by the city in August over alleged irregularities.
The subpoenas against the Houston pastors were issued after a lawsuit was filed against the city by petitioners. Though the pastors were not included in the lawsuit’s filings, they were included in a group of over 400 Houston based churches that opposed the ordinance.
Steve Riggle, the senior pastor of Grace Community Church stated, “This is an attempt to chill pastors from speaking to the cultural issues of the day.” Riggle went on to state, “The mayor would like to silence our voice. She’s a bully.”
David Welch, another pastor among the group subpoened, who serves as the pastor for Bear Creek Church and also as the director for the Houston Area Pastor Council stated, “We’re not afraid of this bully. We’re not intimidated at all.” Welch went on to state, “We are not going to yield our First Amendment rights. This is absolutely a complete abuse of authority.”
Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council stated, “The state is breaching the wall of separation between church and state. 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.”
Mayor Parker will not publicly state why she wants the pastors’ sermons. When contacted, Janice Evans, the mayor’s director of communications, only stated, “We don’t comment on litigation.”
However, ADF attorney Erik Stanley believes this is an attempt to shame pastors and publicly paint them as anti-gay bigots. Stanley stated, “This is designed to intimidate pastors.”
“City council members are supposed to be public servants, not ‘Big Brother’ overlords who will tolerate no dissent or challenge,” Stanley stated.