HOUSTON (AP) — U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz told congregants of his home church Thursday that the city of Houston abused power by subpoenaing sermons and other documents from pastors who publicly opposed a local ordinance banning discrimination against gay and transgender residents.
Cruz, standing among more than a dozen clergy at First Baptist Church in Houston, described the subpoenas as an "abuse of government power" and another illustration of the "indefensible assault by the government on religious liberties."
"Caesar has no jurisdiction over the pulpit," said the Texas Republican, a tea party-backed conservative who is considering a presidential run.
In May, the City Council passed the equal rights ordinance, which consolidates city bans on discrimination based on sex, race, age, religion and other categories and increases protections for gay and transgender residents. Supporters, including Mayor Annise Parker, said the measure is about offering protections at the local level against all forms of discrimination in housing, employment and services provided by private businesses such as hotels and restaurants.
Religious institutions are exempt, but city attorneys subpoenaed five pastors, seeking all speeches, presentations or sermons related to the petition, the mayor, homosexuality or gender identity.
Christian activists sued after city officials ruled they didn't collect enough signatures on petitions to put a referendum on the ballot to repeal the ordinance.
Parker, who is gay, and the city attorney, David Feldman, said the subpoenas were designed to gather evidence in the lawsuit, may have been poorly written by an outside firm working for the city and that she and Feldman were not aware of them and had not read them before they were served.
Feldman said the city would revise the wording and narrow the scope when it responds to a motion to quash them.
The controversy has touched a nerve among religious conservatives around the country, already anxious about the rapid spread of gay rights and what it might mean for faith groups that object. Religious groups have been mobilizing their pastors to protest the Houston subpoenas. The Family Research Council, a conservative political advocacy group, issued an action alert to its network, and the NRB, the national trade association for Christian broadcasters, called the request for sermons an "inquisition.
Even religious leaders who support civil rights protections for gays have protested the subpoenas as a violation of religious freedom. The Rev. Welton Gaddy, head of the liberal Interfaith Alliance, sent a letter to Parker and Feldman calling the request "profoundly disturbing" and an action that "fails to capture the intent of the United States Constitution."
City Secretary Anna Russell initially counted enough signatures to put the repeal referendum on the ballot, but Feldman examined the petition pages to see if the signatures met city charter requirements, focusing on whether signature gatherers were Houston residents and whether they signed the petition. More than half of the 5,199 pages of the petition were disqualified.
Jared Woodfill, who is leading the repeal effort, said he believes the city's use of subpoenas for pastors' sermons and notes is unprecedented. He accused Parker of pursuing a personal agenda and using taxpayer dollars and the power of the government to harass churches.
The inclusion of the word sermon "in a very long legal document which I know nothing about and would never have read and I'm vilified coast to coast," Parker said. "It's a normal day at the office for me."
AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll contributed to this report.