Houston Gov’t Subpoenaed Pastors’ Sermons. Now, They’re Fighting Back.

Just days after the Texas Supreme Court ruled that a contentious equal rights ordinance in Houston, Texas, must either be repealed by August 24, or placed on the November ballot, a group of four pastors and a preachers’ council at the center of the dispute are reportedly set to file a lawsuit against Mayor Annise Parker.

The pastors, whose sermons were initially subpoenaed last year in the midst of intense debate over the ordinance, will claim in the complaint — set to be filed on Monday — that their religious freedoms were “trampled” in the process, KTRK-TV reported.

The lawsuit, which includes the Houston Pastors’ Council, seeks damages that plaintiffs say will go toward paying their legal fees, pending they win; the complaint will also take aim at the claim that local voters were denied the opportunity to vote on the controversial ordinance, which treats gays and lesbians as a protected class.

“The Mayor of Houston violated the law, attempted to use raw intimidation and trampled on the rights of one million Houston citizens,” the Rev. Dave Welch said in a statement about the complaint.

Welch is part of the No Unequal Rights group, which represents pastors of the churches who were issues subpoenas. The group is expected to hold a press conference on Monday, KTRK-TV reported.

News of the lawsuit comes after Houston made headlines for subpoenaing church sermons last year, with the Texas Supreme Court ruling late last month that officials must either repeal the ordinance by August 24, or place the measure on the November ballot.

It’s unlikely that the ordinance will be repealed, as the majority of council members supported it, setting the provision up to become a political issue in the upcoming electoral cycle, KHOU-TV reported.

Opponents of the equal rights ordinance were elated by the court’s ruling, with Parker — the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city — expressing her “disappointment” with the decision and noting that she believes that the state’s high court is “in error.”

“We will proceed with the steps necessary for city council to consider the issue,” she said. “At the same time, we are consulting with our outside counsel on any possible available legal actions.”

As TheBlaze previously reported, the battle over the equal rights ordinance heated up after revelations last fall that the city had subpoenaed church sermons, among other documentation, from five local faith leaders. Officials requested that these preachers deliver communications that focused on homosexuality or the contentious equal rights ordinance, which these individuals have fervently opposed.

The subpoenas, which were issued last September, sought, “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to [the ordinance], the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession,” according to the Houston Chronicle.

The ordinance, which passed in May 2014, has been debated for months, as the new regulations allowed transgendered individuals to file complaints if they are denied restroom usage and banned discrimination in both business and housing.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker speaks during a general session at the California Democrats State Convention on Saturday, March 8, 2014, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
Houston Mayor Annise Parker speaks during a general session at the California Democrats State Convention on Saturday, March 8, 2014, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) AP Photo/Jae C. Hong 

In a city document produced earlier in 2014 to explain the purpose of the ordinance, Houston officials argued that the city is desperately in need of increased protections based on both “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.”

“Houston is the only major metropolitan area in the country that does not prohibit discrimination in places of public accommodation. Additionally, there is no protection against discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity,” the rationale read. “Houston believes that all persons living in or visiting the city are entitled to be treated with equal dignity, respect and status and have the right to be free from discriminatory and unequal treatment.”

After its passage, faith leaders decided to collect signatures to get the ordinance on a November 2014 ballot; they ended up with more than the 17,269 required names.

But after the city examined the documentation to see if signatories were Houston residents and had signed relevant pages — requirements for petitioning — they subsequently rejected a substantial number of the signatures, derailing activists’ and pastors’ attempts to bring the ordinance to a public vote.

Activists and faith leaders responded by suing the city, which is what, in turn, led officials to subpoena documents — including sermons — from some of the houses of worship linked to activists who have vocally opposed and worked against the ordinance. Houston officials later backed away from the sermon subpoena.

It now appears that the issue could be headed for a public vote, as pastors renew a legal challenge surrounding the purported “trampling” of their religious freedom.

(H/T: KTRK-TV)

Front page image via Shutterstock.com.

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