News that Houston city officials are requesting materials from pastors pertaining to efforts to repeal a controversial non-discrimination ordinance makes for troubling precedent about the future of free speech and religious liberty in America.
According to the Houston Chronicle, officials are asking for 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.” The move comes as area pastors mobilized to help repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, a provision that elevates sexuality and gender identity as protected classes in public accommodation law.
The Alliance Defending Freedom has intervened, filing a motion to dismiss the subpoenas.
ERLC President Russell Moore issued a strong condemnation of the move on his blog.
A government has no business using subpoena power to intimidate or bully the preaching and instruction of any church, any synagogue, any mosque, or any other place of worship. The pastors of Houston should tell the government that they will not trample over consciences, over the First Amendment and over God-given natural rights.
The separation of church and state means that we will render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and we will. But the preaching of the church of God does not belong to Caesar, and we will not hand it over to him. Not now. Not ever.
On another level, one must wonder whether it’s just by coincidence that we’re seeing this particular episode occur under the umbrella of conflict between confessional religion and sexual autonomy. The number of times we’ve seen this play out isn’t worth rehearsing in detail. This time, though, the situation isn’t about the business sphere in which cake bakers, photographers and florists face penalty for refusing to provide their services for same-sex weddings. Additionally, it isn’t citizens making complaints against fellow citizens. This time, it’s direct government intervention with affairs inside the church on matters related to religion's questioning of today's sexual politics.
The move by city officials offers a chilling affirmation of what many in conservative Christians circles believe to be true: that dissent or disagreement on what constitutes sexual morality will result in penalty or harassment from the government.
Whether churches should engage in efforts to help repeal a certain law is a matter of prudence and debate. What does matter, however, and what serves as a matter of principle, is that churches shouldn’t be required to send in sermons or any other religious paraphernalia for review by a government lawyer.
We don’t yet know the outcome of this, but the attempt itself is unsettling. It is also foolish, audacious, and unconstitutional. As one friend said to me: “We have to remember that the question here is not ‘should pastors give their sermons to city bureaucrats or not in a situation like this?’ The question is 'should city bureaucrats have the authority to demand sermons in a situation like this?'" Absolutely not. When the state honors the First Amendment; that is, when it provides for the free exercise of religion and doesn’t act in a role of paternal oversight, it is less likely to betray or violate the First Commandment—which demands that we have no other gods other than God the Father of Jesus Christ.
Government intervening in church affairs is just as bad as the IRS taking steps to apply extra levels of scrutiny to conservative groups, as was discovered to have happened in the not-so-distant past. The matter here has several layers of legal intricacies. But the issue reduces to this principle of constitutional warrant: The government has no right to interfere on what’s preached from the pulpit. Criticize churches for getting “political” if you want, but do not, under any circumstances, deem the government a competent czar in theological matters.
Citizens—and pastors—in a free country should not tolerate this and should refuse to comply.