The battle over subpoenas issued by the city of Houston for pastors' speeches and other communications has taken yet another turn, with a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights penning a letter to Mayor Annise Parker, lambasting the information request.
Commissioner Peter Kirsanow, who opened his letter by noting that he was writing on his own accord and not on behalf of the entire commission, warned that the city's pastoral requests "threaten to have a chilling effect on religious and political speech that is protected by the First Amendment."
"Although non-parties to a lawsuit can be required to provide information that is reasonably likely to be relevant and admissible, these subpoenas are plainly overbroad," Kirsanow wrote.
He continued, "A subpoena that requires a pastor to turn over an e-mail to his neighbor about the details of the Equal Rights Ordinance, or a draft book chapter on the Bible and homosexuality that discusses the Equal Rights Ordinance, is clearly overbroad. "
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)
Kirsanow continued by claiming that no government institution should require private citizens to turn over personal communications that relate to important issues of the day, noting that pastors are private citizens with free-speech like anyone else.
The commissioner also noted that the subject matter — mainly homosexuality — is tricky, as the pastors' views on the issue and the equal rights ordnance at the center of the debate are likely shaped by their religious perspective.
"Given that the recipients of these subpoenas are pastors, it is almost inevitable that their views on homosexuality and gender identity are informed by their faith, if not almost entirely rooted in their faith," he continued. "Indeed, the views of many people on homosexuality and gender identity are rooted in their ultimate commitments."
He also charged that the "discovery request impermissibly probes the religious beliefs of private citizens simply because they supported a political effort."
Kirsanow concluded that the request is an "abuse of government power" and that it appears to punish pastors for sharing political views that are predicated upon their faith.
Read the letter in its entirety here.
As TheBlaze previously reported, Houston officials ignited a firestorm when they recently subpoenaed church sermons, among other documentation, from five local faith leaders.
Officials 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, sought, “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.
The city later decided to remove sermons from the subpoena, but that has done little to stem the tide of criticism, considering that other communications are still included.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)., right, is surrounded by well-wishers after he addressed a crowd at a Houston church Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014. Cruz spoke about a legal dispute involving several pastors fighting subpoenas from Houston city attorneys demanding they turn over copies of any sermons they delivered that relate to Houston’s equal rights ordinance championed by the city’s gay mayor, Annise Parker. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
The move was made during discovery, 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.”
So far, the reaction to the subpoena has been swift. Pastors round the nation and around the world have reportedly been sending sermons and Bibles to Parker's office in protest.
There's also an evangelical-led event planned for November 2 in Houston called "I Stand Sunday," during which well-known celebrities, politicians and preachers will meet to defend religious liberty.
Read more about the case here.