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

( [email protected] ) Oct 15, 2014 10:18 AM EDT
Baptist Pastor in Houston
F.N. Williams Sr., 86, the pastor of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Houston since 1958, held high his Bible as he reminded a rally opposing a proposed city nondiscrimination ordinance that the civil rights struggle was fought for racial equality, not sexual behavior. Some see the proposed ordinance as encroaching on religious conscience. Photos by Bonnie Pritchett/Baptist Press

Attorneys with the Alliance Defending Freedom filed a motion on behalf of a group of pastors who received subpoenas from the city of Houston demanding all sermons and communications which reference a controversial city ordinance.

ADF, a law firm known for its defense of religious liberty cases, filed the motion on Oct. 9 in Harris County. Although the Houston-area pastors are not involved in a lawsuit surrounding the ordinance, if they don't produce the demanded information, they could be held in contempt of court.

In June, the Houston city council passed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO, which has become known as the "bathroom bill" due to its support of - among other things - gender identity based restroom use. HERO prompted a petition by citizens to either revoke the bill or turn the issue over to voters.

In July, the city issued a statement regarding HERO, and Mayor Annise Parker said, "The Houston I know does not discriminate, treats everyone equally and allows full participation by everyone in civic and business life. We don't care where you come from, the color of your skin, your age, gender, what physical limitations you may have or whom you choose to love. I am confident voters will soundly defeat any challenge to the ordinance." But voters never saw HERO on the ballot.

Parker, Houston's first openly homosexual mayor, also vowed that the city would do all that it could to defend HERO from being repealed.

In August, opponents of the bill gathered three times the required 17,269 signatures to overturn HERO, which the city secretary determined to be sufficient. According to ADF, the mayor and city attorney rejected the secretary's certification of the signatures, alleging discrepancies in the petition process. ADF in turn filed a lawsuit challenging the rejection.

Steve Riggle - founder of Grace Church Houston, president of Grace International, and executive member of the Houston Area Pastors Council - is one of five pastors who received a subpoena. In it, Riggle is commanded to produce and permit inspection and copying of any documents with HERO-specific subject matter.

Facing opposition is nothing new for Riggle and his wife, Becky who were kidnapped at knife point while serving as missionaries to the Philippines. Captured, stabbed and held hostage in an attempted prison break, the Riggles were the only survivors. They understand what it means to be persecuted.

"This is an attempt to chill pastors from speaking to the cultural issues of the day," Riggle told Fox News columnist and commentator Todd Starnes. "The mayor would like to silence our voice. She's a bully."

Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for ADF, echoes that sentiment, and believes that the situation has escalated far beyond a fight for equal human rights.

"City council members are supposed to be public servants, not 'Big Brother' overlords who will tolerate no dissent or challenge," Stanley said in a statement. "In this case, they have embarked upon a witch-hunt, and we are asking the court to put a stop to it."

The subpoena points to names, types of documents, and topics that the pastors' sermons and communications must be closely examined for. This ranges from mentions of the offices of the mayor to copies of checks made out to petition circulators, as well as each pastor's updated resume.

It also includes all speeches, presentations, or sermons on homosexuality or gender identity that were created by the pastors, including those delivered from their pulpit or in any way distributed. And that demand is alarming to anyone who knows their religious rights under the constitution.

"The message is clear: oppose the decisions of city government, and drown in unwarranted, burdensome discovery requests," the brief accompanying last week's motion states. "These requests, if allowed, will have a chilling effect on future citizens who might consider circulating referendum petitions because they are dissatisfied with ordinances passed by the City Council. The referendum process will become toxic and the People will be deprived of an important check on city government provided them by the Charter."

The city has singled out pastors who preach from God's word. If the court rules that these scriptures - specifically those naming homosexuality as sin - cannot be referenced in any form, then the mayor's claim that Houston is a discrimination-free city that doesn't care where you came from does not hold water.

As the city of Houston attempts to quell religious freedom and free speech, it would bode well for the citizens of cities across the U.S. to take notice and gird up their loins - regardless of their restroom of choice.