The battle over a controversial equal rights ordinance is heating up in Houston, Texas, with revelations that the city has subpoenaed church sermons, among other documentation, from five local faith leaders.
Officials have requested that these preachers deliver communications that have focused on homosexuality or the contentious equal rights ordinance, which these individuals have fervently opposed.
The subpoenas, which were issued last month, seek, “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 you or in your possession,” according to the Houston Chronicle.
Parker, a lesbian, is the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city, as Religion News Services noted.
The move comes as the city of Houston is defending itself against a lawsuit brought by local activists and pastors who are seeking the suspension of the controversial ordinance.
The pastors who have had their sermons subpoenaed are not parties in the lawsuit, though they are part of a coalition of more than 400 preachers and churches in the Houston area who are opposed to portions of the city’s non-discrimination ordinance.
The ordinance, which passed in May, has been debated for months, as the new regulations would allow transgendered individuals to file complaints if they are denied restroom usage and would ban discrimination in both business and housing.
In a city document produced earlier this year 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 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.
“City council members are supposed to be public servants, not ‘Big Brother’ overlords who will tolerate no dissent or challenge,” Erik Stanley, an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal firm representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement released Monday. “In this case, they have embarked upon a witch-hunt, and we are asking the court to put a stop to it.”
While some are decrying the government’s act as disturbing and problematic from a First Amendment perspective, city attorney Dave Feldman has a different take, telling KTRK-TV that he believes that the gathering of signatures at local churches makes examining sermons an entirely appropriate response.
“If they choose to do this inside the church, choose to do this from the pulpit, then they open the door to the questions being asked,” he told the outlet.
Feldman also said on a separate occasion, “If someone is speaking from the pulpit and it’s political speech, then it’s not going to be protected.”
The plaintiffs in the case, which include local leaders and pastors, are now attempting to have the subpoenas thrown out.
“For a city government to step into churches and ask pastors to turn in sermons, it’s gone too far. This is not what America, the nation is about,” Pastor Hernan Castano, a local leader who received a subpoena, told KTRK-TV.
Castano is joined by other religious leaders — Dave Welch, Magda Hermide, Khanh Huynh and Steve Riggle — as targets of the city’s subpoena.
The request for documentation is tied to a January district court date over the dispute. And, according to the Houston Chronicle, the city has no plans of backing away from its subpoenas.