Houston recently passed an ordinance through its city council that has sparked quite a bit of controversy amongst conservative evangelicals. The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), a broad-sweeping, left-leaning law trumpeted by the City of Houston and its openly gay mayor, Annise Parker, is supposed to protect gay, lesbian and transgender people from discrimination. All well and good, but according to the Independent Journal Review, the ordinance to ensure nondiscrimination, discriminates against those of faith who oppose it.
Five pastors, members of Houston's conservative, evangelical base, oppose HERO and the pastors aren't being too quiet about it. They're circulating petitions and gathering signatures in an attempt to get the law repealed. The City of Houston came up with a way to get them to stop. It issued subpoenas for pastors to turn over "All speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by your or in your possession," so that it could, according to Time.com, "determine how the preachers instructed their congregants in their push to get the law repealed."
No one was surprised when the pastors filed suit.
The blowback to the subpoenas was so intense that last Friday, the City of Houston backpedaled and dropped the word "sermon" from the subpoena, as well as "...requests for pastors' teachings on sexuality and gender identity." The city still wants to see all the speeches, presentations, documents, text messages and emails that relate to the pastors' work to get HERO repealed, though.
Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general, and a Republican candidate for governor, sent a letter to Mayor Parker's office requesting she immediately drop the subpoena requests. As reported on Christianitytoday.com, he wrote: "Government officials must exercise the utmost care when our work touches on religious matters. Your aggressive and invasive subpoenas show no regard for the very serious First Amendment considerations at stake." Amen to that, brother!
The subpoenas are censorship pure and simple and they blur the line of demarcation that is supposed to separate church from state. How can the City of Houston's actions be seen any other way by anyone right- or left-leaning, evangelical or secular?
Of course, after the outcry, Mayor Parker, broke out the politicians' primer and issued a well-crafted statement that said the subpoenas were "overly broad" and would be amended. News flash, Mayor Parker. Still censorship. Tossing a few deck chairs off the Titanic didn't stop the ship from sinking and deleting a few words from an "overly broad" subpoena won't make it anything other than what it is -- religious intimidation.
In their lawsuit, the pastors claim the mayor's office unfairly and possibly illegally denied their petition to have HERO considered as a ballot referendum, alleging many of the 50,000 signatures on a petition -- triple the amount required -- were illegible or not verifiable.
Dr. Ed Young, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Houston, jokingly tells me he is "happy" to send his sermons to the mayor and has done so voluntarily in the past as a form of what Baptists call "witnessing to the Gospel of Christ." He says he did not receive a subpoena. The key word here is "voluntarily."
For a government official to try to intimidate or censor speech from the pulpit, or any other form of communication, is clearly unconstitutional and this effort by Houston's mayor should not survive a single court challenge.