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Texas Sermon Subpoenas Infringes Upon Religious Freedom, Sparks Possible Widespread Conservative Backlash

( [email protected] ) Oct 23, 2014 01:42 PM EDT
Earlier this year, Houston mayor Annise Parker issued subpoenas seeking sermons from five of Houston's most conservative pastors in hopes of stifling any alleged anti-homosexual speech in these sermons. But a church and state watchdog group has recognized that this type of selective power from a city mayor may fan the flames a bit more than expected.
Houston Mayor Annise Parker

Earlier this year, Houston mayor Annise Parker issued subpoenas seeking sermons from five of Houston's most conservative pastors in hopes of stifling any alleged anti-homosexual speech in these sermons. But a church and state watchdog group has recognized that this type of selective power from a city mayor may fan the flames a bit more than expected.

Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State wrote in an article this week that the openly gay Houston mayor's actions may cause a conservative backlash equal to "a thousand right-wing fund-raising letters."

"Religious Right groups went ballistic," Boston wrote. "It often turns out in cases like this that what's really going is less horrifying than the far right would have you believe. In this case, it turns out they actually had a point."

Parker signed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) on May 28 of this year in an attempt to stifle what she saw as a breach of human rights by conservative pastors in Houston. "The measure bans discrimination based not just on sexual orientation and gender identity but also, as federal laws do, sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, as well as family, marital or military status," the Houston Chronicle describes the ordinance. "The ordinance applies to businesses that serve the public, private employers, housing, city employment and city contracting. Religious institutions would be exempt. Violators could be fined up to $5,000."

It was that supposed exemption of religious institutions that got the Houston mayor in trouble when city attorneys issues those controversial subpoenas for Houston pastors who opposed the law. 

Despite opponents with the Texas Values Action organization gathering over 50,000 signatures from local residents who are against the mayor's HERO ordinance, judges stated that most of those signatures were invalid due to errors, bringing the valid signatures just under the required 17,269 needed to repeal a government document.

Opponents sued, concerned over the inappropriate measures that the city's government was using to further their cause, including the questionable rejection of those signatures.

"Lawyers often use these types of aggressive tactics for individuals who are direct parties to a lawsuit, but since these pastors aren't parties, this looked like an overreach," Rob Boston continues. "The demand to see the pastors' sermons struck many as especially audacious."

Related: City of Houston Subpoenas Christian Pastors' Sermons Dealing with Homosexuality, Gender Identity or 'Bathroom Bill' 

Critics from both sides of the political fence recognized the legal ramifications of this type of infringement on religious freedom, and Houston's city attorneys later changed the wording of the ordinance to include "speeches" instead of "sermons," even going so far as to blame a pro-bono lawyer for the wording.

An editorial at the Dallas Morning News bashes the mayor and her attorneys for such reactionary methods. 

"It's too bad that both the mayor and the city attorney had such little familiarity with a demand of Houston churches as serious as this one," the editorial states. "It's also too bad that neither seems to appreciate why people might be upset. The city's new subpoenas might be worded more softly, but it isn't clear Houston City Hall is getting the message it should. Houston's push for equal rights is admirable. But that push is sullied when government oversteps its bounds and appears to threaten other protections that were secured in our country's founding." 

Not surprisingly, as NewsBusters points out, coverage of this type of infringement on religious liberties isn't a priority for the country's top new stations. "ABC, CBS and NBC news programs continued to ignore outrage over the Houston mayor's demands. Equally as trivial stories like a segment asking 'Are Halloween decorations getting too scary?' on Sept. 20's Today show,  and another 'Celebrity Workout Secrets' on ABC's Good Morning America Oct.20. were featured instead."