Houston, We Have a Problem: Pastors Who Think They are Above the Law

You’ve probably seen the headlines: Houston demands oversight of sermon,” (inaccurately) wails WND, while Fox has gone for the only slightly more restrained City of Houston demands pastors turn over sermons.” The Religious Right has been in meltdown this past week over what it claims is Houston waging a war on religious freedom, but as usual the reality is far different from what we’re being led to believe.

Here’s what you need to know about the history behind these claims and why they are wildly inaccurate.

HERO and the Lawsuit that Sparked Accusations of a War on Religion

It all started with the city council’s desire to protect Houston’s residents from discrimination by way of HERO, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. The new city law sought to ban discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as other recognized protected classes such as race, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, military status, religion, disability and genetic information, across sectors like employment, city contracting, housing, public accommodations and private employment at businesses with more than 50 employees.

To be clear, the ordinance actually consolidates a lot of anti-discrimination rules that were already in place and was not specifically a piece of LGBT legislation, however it has to be recognized that those provisions were a key feature as, until the ordinance, such protections were lacking.

The measure, which was supported by Mayor Annise Parker who happens to be the first openly lesbian mayor of a major U.S. city, passed in an 11-6 city counsel vote in May of this year, but the lead up to the vote became incredibly bitter as the Religious Right began a firm campaign of misinformation that, for instance, the ordinance would allow men to use womens bathrooms and therefore put women and young girls in danger of being sexually assaulted — this anti-trans chestnut being just one of the many fabrications the Right used to try to derail support.

While they failed in that effort, a group of pastors then began a petition signature gathering campaign to try to repeal the ordinance at the November ballot. They duly collected far in excess of the number of signatures needed and submitted them for counting. However, shortly after this it was alleged that petitions gatherers might have placed peoples names on the petition effort without their permission and a number of people filed affidavits as this matter was brought to the attention of the mayors office.

Subsequently, in August it was announced that the petitioners had in fact failed to gather a viable number of signatures, with the mayor’s office citing a long list of discrepancies and failures to follow proper procedure as reasons why the issue failed to qualify for the ballot. Again, never ones to give up, HERO’s opponents then decided to go to court and sue the city, saying that the Mayor’s office threw out perfectly valid signatures in order to defeat the ballot drive.

They hinge their lawsuit on the fact that the secretary responsible for assessing valid signatures did find that under normal circumstances there would be a valid number of signatures to trigger a public referendum (in excess of 17,269 signatures required by the Charter.) However, petition gatherers submitted 5,199 pages of signatures when they only needed to submit 2,449. The mayor’s office argues that after disregarding the surplus number of pages as required by the Charter and by wider state laws, the valid signature count dropped to just 15,249, and therefore the measure did not qualify.

In response to the lawsuit, though, the City has subpoenaed five pastors involved in the suit to obtain materials surrounding their signature gathering efforts, but also materials that relate to sermons they may have given on this issue. Of course, voices of the Religious Right have framed this as the government trying to take away religion, silencing churches and oppressing Christians. Indeed, Senator Ted Cruz released a breathless word-salad of a press release on this, claiming that Houston has “no power” to ask for copies of the sermons:

This week, the government of Houston, Texas sent a subpoena to silence prayers. The government of Houston, Texas demanded of the pastors, hand over your sermons to the government. The city of Houston has no power – no legal authority – to silence the church. Caesar has no jurisdiction over the pulpit, and when you subpoena one pastor, you subpoena every pastor.

Putting aside the errant notion that anybody is being “silenced,” it is a fact that by virtue of the Religious Right’s own lawsuit against the ordinance, Houston’s administration does have the power to request materials and documents made by the five pastors who sued the City.

Subpoenas and the Court Process

When the coalition of pastors and religious groups filed a lawsuit claiming that Houston’s administration improperly counted or even disregarded petition signatures against the ordinance, it obviously set in motion court proceedings. As part of that, there is what’s known as the pre-trial “discovery phase,” where both sides attempt to secure evidence to bolster their case. This can be anything that a judge might reasonably view as adding weight to their arguments. In this case, an example of what the subpoena asks for includes:

12. 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.

13. All documents, studies, information, communications, or other data relied on in connection with the Petition to check, confirm, or ensure the truthfulness and accuracy of the statements made in the Petition, including but not limited to the statements in the Petition (or in any training materials prepared for Petition Circulators or anyone else involved in the collection of any signatures for the Petition) that “Biological males ARE IN FACT allowed to enter women’s restrooms in Houston under Mayor Annise Parker’s “Equal Rights Ordinance”, thereby threatening the physical and emotional safety of our women and children!” and that “Her ERO creates UNequal Rights for a tiny group of people by taking away rights of safety and privacy for the vast majority of our women and children!”) (emphasis in original).

Given how the Religious Right appeared to run a campaign of misinformation in the lead up to the ordinance passing, and how that misinformation remained during the signature gathering phase to put the ordinance to a public vote, requests to see such materials as a means to support the various reasons why those signatures were not valid does not seem wholly inappropriate, though where we draw the line on what material is relevant here appears to be a matter of great debate.

Now, to be completely fair, the breadth of the subpoenas most certainly are overly-broad and they look (and indeed are) particularly aggressive–and Houston’s administration, while standing by the move to subpoena, has admitted that fact.

Yet, as legal analysts who oppose the ordinance have even pointed out, broad subpoenas are not unusual; it is often expected that a subpoena will be whittled down as the Court begins to select the material that they will need to adjudicate a case. As such, the pastors’ representation, provided by the ever-ready Alliance Defending Freedom, has duly asked either for the subpoenas to be thrown out entirely, or for them to be narrowed. As it happens, they need not have bothered: Houston’s administration has already filed narrower subpoenas to remedy the problem.

Parker has also pointed out that the subpoena was written by outside counsel and that she, as the mayor, was not and would not have been involved in this case — and yet, with more than just a vague whiff of homophobia, she is being vilified as the “lesbian mayor” leading an attack on religious liberty. Parker told the press: Its a normal day at the office for me.

As you can see, the Religious Right may be playing victim here, but this is a fight it started and therefore it opened its own doors to these kinds of inquiries. While there were mistakes made here it seems obvious there was no true nefarious intent behind the subpoenas, but there is something remarkable about the Religious Right wanting to pretend that it is being victimized even as it seeks to repeal an ordinance designed to protect minorities from things like workplace and housing discrimination.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Margaret Goodman
Margaret Goodman1 years ago

Ray F. seems to believe that HERO would force the clergy to perform same-sex marriages. As far as I know, there is no law in the United States compelling the clergy to perform or not performa ny marriage.

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill3 years ago

We do have freedom of religion here! It is in our constitution!

Before Johnson all pastors could talk about candidates and other politics from the pulpit without fear of loosing their tax exemptions. He proposed this while in the senate because the churches where talking against him and he got angry at them.

Robert Hamm
Robert Hamm3 years ago

Yes Braddford ALLLLLLLLLLLL releigions are protected.. NOT just YOURS!!

The government is not allowed to press one religion over another. It is not allowed to crush other religions. Churches are not allowed to DEMAND or even TELL people who to vote for or agasint. IF they wish to do these things then they have a chance of losing their tax free status. Religion does NOT trump our government. At least no ONE religion does.
Thats why many MOVED here to get away from dictatorial religions that disallowed THEM to beleive as they wished.

Timothy W.
Timothy W3 years ago

I posted this on another thread but I think it applies here more.

There will never be peace or equality as long as there are religions. The notion of religious freedom (in the USA at least) can't work. They want their freedom to practice their religion as they see fit and believe. The problem is that if what they believe offends another belief, then there is conflict. We have to many beliefs in this world for peace.

Bradford S.
Brad S3 years ago

In fact, The Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion DOES trump laws spun by activist judges & even governors.
That's what "separation of church and state" was actually referring to when the phrase was originally coined, that the state or federal government has NO power to regulate or inhibit religion, or the free exercise thereof.
Pointing out that the governor was a lesbian had nothing to do with "homophobia", but was merely stating the truth.

Danuta Watola
Danuta W3 years ago

Thank you for posting.

Marie W.
Marie W3 years ago

Religion ....last refuge of the fool.

Marianne C.
Marianne C3 years ago

@ Freddy R:

HERO came with a preexisting religious exemption. You'd already know that if you'd bothered to to even the tiniest little bit of research. I guess we can take this glaring dereliction as another sign of your credibility and of your commitment to the truth -- both of which are notoriously wafer thin.

When you don't know what you're talking about -- and you usually don't -- it might be best not to talk. That way, nobody has to know that you are ignorant of the facts.

However, when you are ignorant of the facts, but you charge right on ahead, full steam and damn the torpedoes, insisting that your ignorance confers some expertise, you look not merely ignorant, but deluded and rather stupid. It's not a fortuitous combination.

To quote two of the great philosophers of our time:

"Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King

"You can't fix stupid" --Ron White

Marianne C.
Marianne C3 years ago

One of the greatest truisms ever committed to paper is this line from Robert Burns:

"The rigid righteous is a fool."

While truer words were never spoken, we can now add to that line: the rigid righteous is also a willing liar, a confidence agent, a huckster of fraud and deceit, a snake oil salesman, and a political enemy to civil rights, human rights, and individual liberties.

Being a pastor does not put one above the law. And unless you don't believe a word Jesus said, neither does Christianity... not even the false kind practiced by the rigid righteous. So if you've been conspiring to commit political fraud, too bad, so sad; your pseudo-religion won't protect you.

Timothy W.
Timothy W3 years ago

Lee R.
I couldn't give you a star because I already did. You say it well though. If people don't get out and vote, we most likely will never experience a real vote again. We have to get these bullies out of office.