Following strong blowback over Tuesday’s news that the City of Houston had subpoenaed the sermons of several pastors in connection with a lawsuit over a controversial local discrimination law, the city has dropped its demands to peruse the contents of the sermons for evidence of so-called hate speech.
According to KHOU-TV, Houston mayor Annise Parker issued a statement Wednesday describing the wording of the subpoenas as “overly broad,” but said that social conservatives had intentionally misinterpreted their intent.
City attorney David Feldman repeated Parker’s admission that the scope of the subpoenas was too broad, adding that the city never meant to infringe on the religious liberties of its residents.
“I would not have worded it that way myself,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that it has been construed as some sort of effort to infringe upon religious liberty. All we are looking for are communications from any of these pastors who were organizing the petition drive and any communications regarding the petition process.”
A day earlier, Feldman had told KTRK-TV that he had no problem with the purpose and scope of the subpoenas. “If they [pastors] 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 said.
“The petition” was an effort by opponents of the city’s Equal Rights Ordinance to overturn the local law, which restates many civil rights already covered under federal law, while also famously allowing people to use the public restroom gender of their preference.
Here’s the full text of our Wednesday article on the city’s subpoena request:
The 1st Amendment is coming up against local discrimination laws in Houston, where the city council has subpoenaed sermons from several pastors who’ve allegedly referenced the city’s lesbian mayor or portrayed homosexuality as immoral before their congregations.
Houston passed an anti-discrimination ordinance in May, approving a piece of local legislation pushed by mayor Annise Parker, a lesbian who described the measure as “the most personally satisfying and most personally meaningful thing that I will do as mayor.” Several religious leaders in Houston have remained vocal in their opposition since that time. A petition to hold a referendum on the law drew far more than the required number of signatures, but was declared “invalid” by the city attorney. A voter lawsuit challenging that decision is now pending.
Equal rights is one thing; forcing pastors into court over the convictions they share with willing churchgoers is another. To mount its defense in the lawsuit, the city has subpoenaed the sermons and “other communications,” according to Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), in an effort to demonstrate the law’s opponents are violating the ordinance if they are telling congregants that homosexuality is a sin.
ADF, which is representing five Houston pastors in the case, posted a release to its website Monday criticizing city leaders for conducting what ADF’s Erik Stanley described as a “witch hunt.”
“City council members are supposed to be public servants, not ‘Big Brother’ overlords who will tolerate no dissent or challenge. In this case, they have embarked upon a witch-hunt, and we are asking the court to put a stop to it,” Stanley said.
An Oct. 9 legal brief filed by ADF on the pastors’ behalf questions the constitutionality of the city’s subpoena.
“[T]he discovery requests demand materials that are protected by the First Amendment privilege governing discovery of nonpublic documents and communications relating to a political campaign and political strategy,” ADF wrote.
ADF also condemned the city’s handling of the petition to hold a referendum on the ordinance.
“In June, the Houston City Council passed its ‘bathroom bill,’ which sparked a citizen initiative to have the council either repeal the bill or place it on the ballot for voters to decide,” the group’s online statement reads. “The public submitted more than three times the legally required number of valid signatures, which the city secretary, who is entrusted by law to examine and certify petitions, certified as sufficient. The mayor and city attorney defied the law and rejected the certification.”