By / Sep 6

I was living just 60 miles away when a tornado hit Joplin in 2011 and obliterated several city blocks, leaving 158 people dead. X-rays from that tornado rained down in my front yard while I sat in church, initially oblivious to what had happened.

But once we knew, we mobilized.

Over a span of several months, we took student groups to help with the cleanup. As we pulled into command centers in our 15-passenger van, I was struck by how many similar vehicles, also filled with people of faith, had already flocked to the scene. We worked beside youth groups from Oklahoma, small groups from Kansas, and teams of men and women who drove miles and miles to serve. We were bound together with two strong cords: our love for Jesus and our desire to be his “hands and feet” in an overwhelmingly desperate situation.

The Church drives the ambulance

From tornados in Joplin, to ice storms in the midwest, to single house fires in individual communities, there is no shortage of disaster. Hurricane Harvey is only the most recent in a long line of catastrophes that make us stare at our TVs and social media feeds in disbelief. Unless Christ returns first, it won’t be the last. Yet the story you likely won’t see on the news is this: even before the waters receded, Christians were flooding in to help.

As part of the ministry team for my local church, my pastor often reminds us that we are first responders. When we hear someone is hurting or facing tragedy, he has taught us to rush in. Sometimes we beat the ambulances to the scene. During a recent hostage situation in our small town, my pastor followed his own advice (like I’ve seen him do a million times before). He read a rumor about the situation on Facebook, hopped in his car, and crossed the police barrier. When I asked him why he shrugged and replied, “I just thought maybe I could help.” I know him well enough to know he was motivated by convictions much deeper than that.

Statistical data is sparse about Christian disaster relief for a few reasons: disaster zones aren’t the best place to collect surveys, and Christians tend to prefer to serve under the radar, but we’ve got a long history of rushing collectively to serve as first responders.  

“Churches are literally, honestly, the first ones there,” one government official told The New York Times.

After Katrina, Harvey’s ugly older sister who slammed New Orleans in 2005, faith-based organizations played a critical role, first in emergency relief and then in rebuilding. Congregations from every denomination opened their facilities to become emergency shelters. Churches sent teams for years after the storm to rebuild and extend financial and emotional support to those who were displaced. The Salvation Army and the Red Cross, both organizations founded by Christians and built on biblical truths, played vital roles in the relief and clean-up efforts that went on long after the news vans pulled away.

We are also often the first to pull out our checkbooks, in part because we believe that our money is God’s money. Without a central reporting system and because of our desire to give anonymously, it’s impossible to track how much money Christians have given toward relief, but there are lots of indicators that our giving is remarkable and generous. Southern Baptists estimate they gave somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 million dollars toward Katrina relief. Similar patterns are already emerging for Harvey.

Government agencies acknowledge that the remarkable role the faith community in responding when disaster strikes. One Obama administration document stated “nonprofit organizations, including faith-based and community organizations, play a vital role in both preparing for disaster, and in ensuring an inclusive and participatory community-wide recovery from a disaster.”

Certainly, Christians aren’t the only ones to respond. Government and other community organizations also play a key role, but we play a lead role in the charge, and we do have the market cornered in three key beliefs about disaster.

1. We know why. The question that usually spills from our hearts and lips when disaster strikes is “Why?” We want to know there’s a method to the madness, or at least a reason for it.

Because we believe in the biblical narrative of creation, fall, and redemption, we can answer the “why” question. We live in a world twisted and cracked by sin and brokenness, and creation will continue to groan under the strain. This is not the Eden God originally created, yet these are the birth pains of a world being re-born.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? (Rom. 8:22-24)

It isn’t warm and fuzzy, and it is a message best delivered with prayer and care at ground zero of any disaster, but we all ultimately suffer because of sin. No single person or sin causes hurricane-level consequences, but collectively we are a people in glad rebellion against God. The devastation we see all around us is a jarring reminder of the wake left behind by our sin.

2. We know what’s next. As Christians, we can also uniquely answer the question, “Will it happen again?” Scripture forces us to see the inconvenient truth that until Christ comes, disasters will continue. Jesus cut to the chase in John 16:33, “In the world you will have tribulation.” As long as our home is here, on this third rock from the sun, tribulation, trials, and disaster will come.

That is the cloud. Here is the silver lining: these moments of destruction point forward to a day when destruction is finally over, and we will dance with worshipful joy.

3. We alone see the thread of hope. We don’t serve in disaster zones for intrinsic rewards. We serve to follow Christ’s lead. We want to give more than bottled water and clean blankets. We’re in the business of giving away hope.

As Christians, we are unique in our understanding that hope only comes through Jesus. Ours is the only God who can calm a storm, and when he doesn’t, we are the only ones with the unsinkable hope that all things will be made new.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ (Rev. 21:1-4)

We hold high the banner of hope because we long for the city that no floodwall can breach, no looters can rob, no storm can ever touch. We believe in a God who rescues each of us from the storm of our sin and sets our feet on higher places. We believe in the gospel of peace which redeems and restores. We’ve each been rescued by a Savior who rushed in on our behalf. Ultimately, we are just doing what we can to show that to the world.

I don’t have a crystal ball, but I do have a hunch, informed by history, that Christians will help rebuild Houston. Youth group mission trips, relief organizations, and local congregations will do the hard work to make things right. We don’t do it for “Atta Boys” or gold stars. We don’t even do it to bolster our “brand” with photo ops staged to impress the public in a culture that is increasingly post-Christian. We will do it because we believe all people are made in the image of God, worthy of dignity and care, and because we all know how it feels to be rescued. May we never, ever forget it.

By / Nov 5

On Tuesday residents of Houston, Texas, America’s fourth most populous city, voted by a margin of 61 percent to 39 percent, to repeal the city's Equal Rights Ordinance. Here is what you should know about the controversial law.

What was Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance?

Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance, better known as HERO, was an ordinance passed by the city council in May. The law would have made it illegal to discriminate against someone based on 15 different “protected characteristics,” including sex, race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity.

Why was HERO so controversial?

The main concern many citizens had with the ordinance was with it’s definition of gender identity and how it would apply to “public accommodations.” The text of the ordinance defined gender identity as follows:

Gender Identity means an individual’s innate identification, appearance, expression or behavior as either male or female, although the same may not correspond to the individual’s body or gender as assigned at birth.

This wording, combined with the document’s definition of public accommodation, would have allowed men and women who “identify” with the opposite gender to use public bathrooms and locker rooms of the opposite sex.

Why was the bill dubbed the “bathroom ordinance”?

Although the bill didn’t specially mention public bathrooms, the wording of the law made it clear that transgender people would be able to use the bathrooms of the opposite sex.

As Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick said after the vote,

The voters clearly understand that this proposition was never about equality – that is already the law. It was about allowing men to enter women’s restrooms and locker rooms — defying common sense and common decency.

How did the ordinance come up for a referendum vote?

After the referendum was rejected by the city, says Houston pastor Nathan Lino, the “petitions were appealed all the way to the Texas Supreme Court who ruled 7-0 that the signatures are indeed valid and ordered the Mayor to repeal the ordinance or put it up for a city vote.”

What did the ordinance have to do with the “Stand with Houston pastors” movement?

After the city council passed the ordinance in May, many local residents, including some pastors in the area, opposed the law and supported a citizen initiative to have the council either repeal the bill or place it on the ballot for voters to decide.

Although the initiative was certified by the City Secretary, the mayor and city attorney threw out the petition claiming it was invalid. This sparked a lawsuit by the initiative supporters, Woodfill v. Parker. The city’s attorneys subpoenaed a number of area pastors, demanding to see what they preach from the pulpit and to examine their communications with their church members and others concerning the city council’s actions. Some of the pastors who received the subpoena were not even involved in the initiative.

The subpoena covered almost every type of communication related to HERO, the mayor, or the petition initiative. The most controversial wording in the subpoena was this clause:

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.

Five pastors refused to comply and were supported by a social media campaign called “Stand with Houston pastors.”

Why did the pastors have a problem with providing their sermons?

A case could be made that if the sermons were construed as electioneering (persuading voters as part of political campaign) that such communications could be relevant to the lawsuit. But the subpoena also requested all sermons about homosexuality and gender identity. This was a clear-cut case of overreach and has been construed as attempting to suppress the free speech rights of the pastors.

As legal scholar Eugene Volokh said,

At the very least, the subpoena seems vastly overbroad. And the fact that it seeks the contents of religious speeches does counsel in favor of making the subpoena as narrow as possible (which would likewise be the case if it sought the contents of political speeches). I’m not sure what sort of legally relevant information might be contained in the subpoenaed sermons. But the subpoena ought to be narrowed to that legally relevant information, not to all things about homosexuality, gender identity, the mayor, or even the petition or the ordinance.

Why did the pastors have a problem with providing their sermons?

Sermons are public utterances, so most pastors would have few qualms with giving a copy to anyone who asked — even a government official. The concern was with the idea that a city government has the authority to scrutinize a sermon to determine whether it fits within the limits of what government officials deem to be politically acceptable.

Another concern was with the use of government power to intimidate pastors into not speaking out on issues such as homosexuality. As the Alliance Defense Fund notes in a legal motion to quash the subpoenas,

It appears they were designed to punish the Nonparty Pastors for being part of the coalition that invoked the City Charter’s referendum provision, and discourage them and other citizens from ever doing so again. The message is clear: oppose the decisions of city government, and drown in unwarranted, burdensome discovery requests.

By / Nov 2

Proposition 1 is a ballot initiative on HERO—Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance—a proposed sexual orientation, gender identity, nondiscrimination law. The ordinance is more commonly known as “the bathroom ordinance” as it includes regulations for the use of restrooms and locker rooms in the city limits. Any individual in our city would be allowed to use whichever gender based restroom or locker room they most identify with that day. For example, any male in our city would be free to enter a women's restroom or locker room simply by claiming he self-identifies as a female. Churches would be exempt from the proposed ordinance.

Proposition 1 is an unacceptable proposal on at least two major levels:

First, it is a clear infringement on religious liberty in our city. Every private business owner should be free to operate their business according to their personal beliefs without the fear of unjust government punishment. The government was formed to be freedom's greatest protector, not its greatest threat. We surrender to Caesar what is Caesar’s: tax money. But we surrender to God what is God's: our conscience. If Prop 1 passes, private business owners who are Catholic, Muslim, Mormon, Christian and more will be forced to operate their private businesses contrary to their personal convictions.

Proposition 1 is also a significant infringement on the safety and privacy of many people in our city. All women and young girls should be free to use public restrooms and locker rooms in Houston without fear of a man watching them in their most vulnerable state. This ordinance will provide cover for perverted and malicious individuals to access our women and children. Surely there are solutions to sexual orientation, gender identity and public service challenges whose costs do not have to be carried by the young girls of our city.

Evangelicals nationally may not realize this ordinance is directly related to the Houston city government issuing sermon subpoenas to five Houston pastors in the Fall of 2016; the fight over this matter has been going on for eighteen months. The Mayor of Houston had this ordinance put into law by the City Council. Fortunately, city law also allows Houston citizens to collect a certain number of signatures on a petition and force a city council decision to be brought to a public vote. Thousands more signatures were collected than the minimum necessary. Every signature was accompanied by detailed and verified information. The petitions were notarized. The Mayor promptly had her City attorney invalidate the signatures. She simultaneously attempted to bully Houston pastors by issuing far-reaching subpoenas to five high profile pastors, demanding all sermons, emails, letters and text messages. Houston pastors were undeterred. The petitions were appealed all the way to the Texas Supreme Court who ruled 7-0 that the signatures are indeed valid and ordered the Mayor to repeal the ordinance or put it up for a city vote. The Proposition 1 vote on November 3rd is the result of this eighteen month process.

Eighteen months ago, a poll showed the vast majority of our city opposes this ordinance. But in the end, it won't matter how many city residents oppose the ordinance—it will matter how many voters oppose the ordinance. The evangelical pastors of our city, including myself, are highly motivated to defeat Prop 1 as religious freedom is clearly a gospel issue, and the protection of our city's little girls is clearly a fundamental human right. For people in our city who are tired of the attack on religious liberty, this is a clear target to shoot at: “Vote no on Prop 1.” Northeast Houston Baptist Church is mobilizing our members, utilizing stage announcements and social media. Our pastors participated in a press conference with over 100 other evangelical pastors, asking our city to “Vote no on Prop 1.”  The Houston Area Pastor's Council is running television commercials and social media advertisements and yard signs are peppered in many yards.

Lord willing, voters will force our government to find a way to provide public services to our city without infringing on religious liberty or exposing many of our citizens to harm.

By / Oct 20

A few months back, the Solicitor General of the United States argued before the Supreme Court that if you engage in business, you give up certain legal protections for your religious conscience.

Justice Alito, who penned the majority opinion rejecting the Solicitor General’s argument, framed the government’s argument as follows: “HHS would put these merchants to a difficult choice: either give up the right to seek judicial protection of their religious liberty or forgo the benefits, available to their competitors, of operating as corporations.”

Five justices rejected the government’s argument and, instead, declared there to be broad legal protections of religious liberty within federal law.  Such protections safeguard the guarantees of religious liberty as found in the First Amendment.  “Is there any reason to think,” wrote Justice Alito on behalf of the majority, “that the Congress that enacted such sweeping protection put small-business owners to the choice that HHS suggests?”

The Court affirmed the right of a businessman to retain his constitutional freedoms when entering the marketplace.  A mayor in Houston recently extended the Solicitor General’s bad argument a step further.  By serving subpoenas on five pastors, the City of Houston thinks it has found a new activity that is “inconsistent” with the legal protections arising under the law: preaching in a manner that displeases the Mayor.

Like the scenario in Hobby Lobby, pastors in the largest city in the reddest state in the Union have been put on notice: when you enter the pulpit, you shed your constitutional rights to freely exercise your religion, freely speak your mind, or freely dissent from the Mayor’s New Sexual Orthodoxy.  Such acts of naked political intimidation cannot pass muster under the “sweeping protections” for religious liberty under federal and state law or an unbroken line of First Amendment cases.

Rendering Only What Caesar is Due

During litigation, attorneys may seek information through subpoenas, depositions, requests for production, interrogatories, and other discovery methods – but the requests must be “reasonably calculated to lead to discoverable information.”  Clergy are most clearly protected under the “priest-penitent” and “pastor-parishioner” privileges.  These privileges foreclose production of any personal communications from the pastor to the parishioner, and vice-versa, that was shared in confidence.

More importantly, individual citizens – especially clergy – may not be targeted for burdensome and vexatious discovery as a means of silencing Free Speech or interfering with the Free Exercise of religion.

The Mayor and her attorneys targeted the pastors – non-parties to the underlying litigation – because, as pastors have done throughout the history of our nation (and, broadly, the history of the world), they engaged the controversial issues of the day, bringing the Christian worldview to bear upon it, teaching their parishioners how to think through such moral-political issues, and prophetically speaking against what they perceived as an immoral action of their government.

Little has been more sacrosanct – legally and morally – in this country than the right of pastors to instruct their flock.  But the Mayor and the City of Houston seem to have a different view on the First Amendment, Free Speech, and the Free Exercise of religion: pastors who lawfully talk about politics as fair game: “If the 5 pastors used their pulpit for politics, their sermons are fair game.”

Fair game for what?  Each pastor stated that he would welcome the Mayor into their church and offer to print copies of any sermon on any topic.  That is the nature of evangelical outreach.  But Mayor Parker does not come with a humble heart and mind seeking to understand the Christian faith.  Instead, she is using the awesome power of her office to intimidate pastors who dissent from her heavy-handed – and potentially unlawful – enforcement of the orthodoxy she prefers.

What Mayor Parker forgets is that pastors are never obliged to render unto Caesar that which Caesar has no right to require.

As Abraham Kuyper once observed, “The sovereignty of the State and the sovereignty of the Church exist side by side, and they mutually limit each other.” The conflict on display here is one in which the church has justly acted to limit the authority of the state on legislating matters of morality, but the state has acted unjustly to limit the right of the church to speak on such matters.

Unmasked, what the mayor of Houston has attempted here is to intimidate the men of the pulpit.  When government takes such steps to intimidate the use of the pulpit or, worse, to seize control of it, we are left with no other choice but to call such action tyranny.  This is not the request made by one who seeks to understand the faith that has “once, for all, been delivered to the saints;” it is a legal tactic designed to hoist the sermonizers of Houston on the pike for all the nation to see, “Thus always to bigots.”

Let us learn from history.  Tyrants throughout history routinely sought to seize control of the pulpit in order to consolidate their power.  Ask Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Martin Niemöller, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer of the last century how the Bolsheviks and Third Reich deceived, divided, and destroyed the religious liberty of their citizens through the intimidation of their churches.

Is Mayor Paker’s subpoena a newer, more refined version of the dictator’s henchman?  Only time will tell.  Meanwhile, let us never think that persecution comes to the church of America in shiny riding boots beneath black uniforms with lightning bolts on the collars.  Persecution comes with more stealth, sometimes masked by that which seems perfectly legal.

“Do What You Wish”

If the Mayor and the City of Houston persist in persecuting religious dissenters – even as they purport to “narrow the scope” of their unlawful subpoena, the Church must respond with winsome resolve.

Few in this world responded to persecution with such convivial tenacity as Polycarp.  This martyr of the first century is famous for his unbending dedication to his Savior.  Polycarp burned, unbound, at the stake for the name of Christ, but he did not walk there without a defense.  His contemporary church urged him to evade capture when the warrant for his arrest was issued, which he did for some time.  This elderly churchman eluded a search party of Roman soldiers for months before finally being turned-in by a friend threatened with torture.  When Polycarp stood before the proconsul, he refused to recant.

Even the proconsul understood the optics of executing an octogenarian and plied the man to recant to save the inevitable.  This church father, who had spent a lifetime evangelizing any who would humbly listen, refused to grant Caesar an illegitimate audience. “Listen carefully,” Polycarp said, “I am a Christian.  Now if you want to learn the doctrine of Christianity, name a day and give me a hearing.”

The proconsul challenged Polycarp to persuade the watching people of Rome, now bloodthirsty for his execution.  Polycarp replied, “You [sic] I might have considered worthy of a reply, for we have been taught to pay proper respect to rulers and authorities appointed by God, as long as it does us no harm; but for these, I do not think they are worthy, that I should have to defend myself before them.”

The proconsul threatened, “I have wild beasts; I will throw you to them, unless you change your mind.”  Polycarp replied, “Call for them!”

“I will have you consumed by fire, since you despise the wild beasts,” continued the proconsul.

“You threaten with a fire that burns only briefly and after just a little while is extinguished,” proclaimed the aged bishop of Smyrna, “For you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly.  But why do you delay?  Come, do what you wish.”

Let these be the words on the lips of every pastor in Houston, Texas, who have been summoned by their government to submit their sermons for examination to those who seek only to do them harm.  Let us each, likewise, pay proper respect to the rulers and authorities that have been appointed over us by God, so long as it harms not our conscience before God.  When threatened with arrest, let us make every just and legal effort to avoid such an unjust sentence.  Yet, when the state refuses to limit itself, let us ignore the threats of fines and jail and reply steadfastly, “Come, do what you wish.”

Therefore, be encouraged by the admonition of Kuyper: “[H]owever powerfully the State may assert itself and oppress the free individual development, above that powerful State there is always glittering, before our soul’s eye, as infinitely more powerful, the majesty of the King of kings, Whose righteous bar ever maintains the right of appeal for all the oppressed, and unto Whom the prayer of the people ever ascends, to bless our nation and, in that nation, us and our house.”

By / Oct 16

What’s the controversy in Houston about?

This summer the Houston City Council, with the support of mayor Annise Parker, passed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) by a vote of 11-6. HERO extended protections against discrimination to cover homosexuality and transgenderism. Many local residents, including some pastors in the area, opposed the ordinance and supported a citizen initiative to have the council either repeal the bill or place it on the ballot for voters to decide.

Although the initiative was certified by the City Secretary, the mayor and city attorney threw out the petition claiming it was invalid. This sparked a lawsuit by the initiative supporters, Woodfill v. Parker. The city’s attorneys subpoenaed a number of area pastors, demanding to see what they preach from the pulpit and to examine their communications with their church members and others concerning the city council’s actions. Some of the pastors who received the subpoena were not even involved in the initiative.

What types of documents were requested under the subpoena?

The subpoena covers almost every type of communication related to HERO, the mayor, or the petition initiative. The most controversial wording in the subpoena was this clause:

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.

Does the city government have a right to subpoena the pastors?

A case could be made that if the sermons were construed as electioneering (persuading voters as part of political campaign) that such communications could be relevant to the lawsuit. But the subpoena also requested all sermons about homosexuality and gender identity. This was a clear-cut case of overreach and has been construed as attempting to suppress the free speech rights of the pastors.

As legal scholar Eugene Volokh says,

At the very least, the subpoena seems vastly overbroad. And the fact that it seeks the contents of religious speeches does counsel in favor of making the subpoena as narrow as possible (which would likewise be the case if it sought the contents of political speeches). I’m not sure what sort of legally relevant information might be contained in the subpoenaed sermons. But the subpoena ought to be narrowed to that legally relevant information, not to all things about homosexuality, gender identity, the mayor, or even the petition or the ordinance.

Why would the pastors have a problem with providing their sermons?

Sermons are public utterances, so most pastors would have few qualms with giving a copy to anyone who asked — even a government official. The concern is with the idea that a city government has the authority to scrutinize a sermon to determine whether it fits within the limits of what government officials deem to be politically acceptable.

Another concern is with the use of government power to intimidate pastors into not speaking out on issues such as homosexuality. As the Alliance Defense Fund notes in a legal motion to quash the subpoenas,  

It appears they were designed to punish the Nonparty Pastors for being part of the coalition that invoked the City Charter’s referendum provision, and discourage them and other citizens from ever doing so again. The message is clear: oppose the decisions of city government, and drown in unwarranted, burdensome discovery requests.

What happens now?

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal organization that advocates for “the right of people to freely live out their faith”, has filed a motion in a Texas court to have the subpoenas either “quashed in their entirety” or have the Court grant a modification of the discovery requests that clarifies that they do not include the requested documents that are not reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence and the requested documents protected by the First Amendment privilege.

Additionally, a spokesperson for the city says that Houston’s mayor was surprised by the supoenas,

Mayor Parker agrees with those who are concerned about the city legal department’s subpoenas for pastor’s sermons. The subpoenas were issued by pro bono attorneys helping the city prepare for the trial regarding the petition to repeal the new Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) in January. Neither the mayor nor City Attorney David Feldman were aware the subpoenas had been issued until yesterday. Both agree the original documents were overly broad. The city will move to narrow the scope during an upcoming court hearing. Feldman says the focus should be only on communications related to the HERO petition process.

See also: #4Houston5: Stand with Houston pastors

Image Credit: Jordan Cooper

By / Oct 16

Public outrage is spreading over the City of Houston’s attempt to force pastors to hand over their sermons and other communications in a case where they are not parties. Just after midnight on Wednesday, Houston Mayor Annise Parker tweeted in defense of her subpoenas, saying pastors’ sermons are “fair game” if they concern an issue where the pastors have opposed government policy. Then Wednesday afternoon her office went into damage control, declaring the subpoenas were a surprise to the city. But around 8 pm Wednesday night the mayor tweeted again in support of an ideological commentary piece that defended the subpoenas. So it seems that the mayor was for the subpoenas both before and after she was against them.

Legal commentary has been skeptical of the city’s sermon demand, but some are still a little too sanguine about it. One is Professor Eugene Volokh. He correctly points out that the First Amendment requires scrutiny on discovery requests of people engaged in free speech. But when he suggests that the pastors might “in principle” be subpoenaed, he cites several cases that are not squarely applicable.

In Houston the pastors are not suing, being sued, helping a criminal investigation, or violating any law. They are being subpoenaed solely because they engaged in free speech and petitioning of the government, and they are being targeted by the government who disagrees with them. This makes the First Amendment interests much stronger than in the situations Professor Volokh cites, where people were sued for harassment or employment discrimination, or were asked to testify at a grand jury’s investigation of a crime, or had brought their own lawsuit and thus were subject to discovery. The pastors here are simply community members who exercised their First Amendment rights against a governmental policy. In fact, in the existing lawsuit it is the government that is accused of wrongdoing (by denying citizens the right to vote on a “bathroom bill”). The First Amendment does not let the government violate citizens’ rights and then, when it gets sued, use court rules as a sword to attack the advocacy rights of its political opponents.

In several cases that Prof. Volokh did not discuss, federal appellate courts have imposed some rigorous requirements in the balancing test used to weigh First Amendment interests against discovery requests. These cases show that the subpoenas here are illegitimate and are not analogous to cases where a pastor is a defendant in a case.

First, while the ordinary discovery standard can merely require that the request be calculated to find any relevant evidence, a request aimed at non-party free speakers requires that the discovery be “highly” relevant, “crucial” to the litigant’s case, and that it go to “the heart of the matter.” Perry v. Schwarzenegger, 591 F.3d 1147, 1161 (9th Cir. 2010); Black Panther Party v. Smith, 661 F.2d 1243, 1268 (D.C. Cir. 1981); Zerilli v. Smith, 656 F.2d 705, 713 (D.C. Cir. 1981) (same). This lawsuit is about whether the city violated its legal duties by refusing to let the people vote on a bathroom bill. There no relevance, much less “high” relevance, between that issue and what pastors in Houston said about that law (or about anything else).

Second, even if the information sought could be shown to be “highly relevant,” the same cases say it must also be “otherwise unavailable,” the litigant must “exhaust […] every reasonable alternative source” before demanding it from First Amendment actors, and the litigant is “required to attempt to seek information from other likely and reasonably accessible sources.” See id. Perry, Black Panther Party, and Zerilli; see also

Internat’l Union, UAW v. National Right to Work Legal Defense & Education Foundation, Inc., 590 F.2d 1139, 1152 (D.C. Cir. 1979). The information the city needs to defend this case is entirely available from other sources. The actual plaintiffs in the case are the supporters of the petition the city denied, so the city can simply ask them for evidence about the petition process. There is no need to attack non-party pastors with demands for their sermons and communications.

Third, any request impacting First Amendment rights must be “carefully tailored to avoid unnecessary interference with protected activities.” Perry, 591 F.3d at 1161. Careful tailoring precludes the sort of dragnet language often found in discovery requests (demanding “all documents related to” something). Here the city’s demands are massively broad, and they cannot be legitimately narrowed because no specific document that the city wants will be sufficiently relevant to the case. If the city did actually request a specific document, it would be shown to be insufficiently relevant. So lawyers wanting to sustain overbroad subpoenas like this will fight tooth and nail not to name a specific document, but to keep the requests as generic as possible by asking for documents “related to” an issue. They’ll just claim that because the issue is relevant, all documents “related to” it must be too. That kind of request fails both the careful tailoring and highly relevant standards. It is a smokescreen pretending to be narrow, but hiding the fact that all the specific documents within its scope are not crucial enough to the case to trump the pastors’ First Amendment interests.

Rigorous First Amendment protection is needed against government discovery requests to non-parties. Otherwise a citizen’s mere exercise of First Amendment protected activity (like petitioning its government to vote on a controversial law) could subject the citizen to broad document and deposition subpoenas that would dissuade her from speaking in the first place. If court rules are interpreted to allow those burdens—especially if the citizens have publicly opposed the government that is subpoenaing them—it would likely suppress citizen participation in representative government. Citizens would fear that if they publicly advocate and lose the issue, they will be dragged into court by their political opponents, need to hire attorneys, be forced to hand over their private documents and be subjected to hostile depositions. That is far too high a price to impose both on citizens themselves and on the robust dialogue and public participation that are necessary in order to maintain a free society. It is an inquisition tactic used by a government that will not tolerate any dissent from or checks on its power.

By / Oct 15

Will you join churches in Texas and across the country in responding to the stunning religious liberty violations happening in Houston? 

Everything's bigger in TX including the troubling developments in Houston as city attorneys have issued subpoenas to ministers who have been vocal in opposition to the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), a measure which deals with gender identity and sexuality in public accommodations. The subpoenas, issued to five ministers, seek “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.”

In an effort to intimidate churches from advocating for a biblical view of sexuality, the city of Houston has taken unconstitutional actions that set a dangerous precedent for future religious freedom violations. If your church is any like mine, you are already starting to get many questions about this situation from your congregation.

How can your church join with these Hispanic, Anglo, and Asian congregations, including a Vietnamese Southern Baptist Church, targeted by this bureaucratic bullying? Here are several ways:

  • Preach: Would you consider how to address this issue with your church this Sunday, either by preaching a sermon on marriage and sexuality or taking a few minutes to address the Houston situation at some point during your service?
  • Pray: Would you lead your people to pray for the ministers impacted by this subpoena as well as for protection for religious liberty throughout our nation?
  • Educate: Would you educate your church on religious liberty and why it is worth standing for and why this action in Houston is unacceptable? A great resource to point them to is ERLC President Russell Moore's article “Houston, We Have a Constitution.”
  • Send: If the Houston Mayor's office wants sermons on marriage and sexuality, let's give them what they want! Print out your sermon manuscript or notes from a sermon on marriage or sexuality, snap a picture and post it on social media with the hashtag #4Houston5, and mail it to the Mayor's office at:

Mayor Annise D. Parker
City of Houston
P.O. Box 1562
Houston, TX 77251

The way churches respond to this situation will set a pattern for how religious liberty issues are addressed in the future. In the words of Russell Moore, “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.”

By / Oct 15

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.

By / Apr 3

HOUSTON — The expectant mother in the room adjacent to Grady Butler’s office at the Greenspoint Pregnancy Assistance Center exclaimed with joy at the first sight of her unborn child’s ultrasound.

“The more she saw the baby inside her the more she was in awe,” said Butler, executive director of GPAC’s umbrella organization, Missions Greenspoint. The newly acquired ultrasound machine donated by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s Psalm 139 Project was cause for joy.

The donation will greatly expand GPAC’s ability to reach women considering abortion when facing unplanned pregnancies, said GPAC’s director Flora Lopez. director of Greenspoint Pregnancy Assistance Center (GPAC) embraced her “baby” the day it arrived at the Mission Greenspoint ministry offices Feb. 3. 

Through the Psalm 139Project, ERLC seeks to save lives by donating an ultrasound machine to pregnancy centers in cities hosting the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting, held in Houston last year

Daniel Darling, vice-president for communictions for ERLC, says the Psalm 139 ministry is part of the ERLC’s mission to equip the church to live out the gospel, “GPAC is a gospel-centered ministry staffed by people who take the Great Commission seriously. We’re honored to be a part of this gospel ministry.”

Prior to the acquisition, Lopez experienced heartbreak each time she had to tell a potential client GPAC didn’t have an ultrasound machine. She wondered whether they would they seek counsel at a disinterested medical clinic or a nearby Planned Parenthood clinic? After four days of training on the Esoteric MyLab 20 Plus, Lopez expressed confidence that God will use the technology to transform lives in the center’s  rough neighborhood.

GPAC is just one of several ministries operating under the purview of Mission Greenspoint in  northeast Houston near the outskirts of town. Typical of metropolitan areas, its economy has at time  prospered and declined. The neighborhood is composed of undereducated and economically poor families merely scraping by, under the specter of gang violence, drug dealing and prostitution. Mission Greenspoint shines in the neighborhood the light of Christ. No one comes to Mission Greenspoint or GPAC without hearing the gospel and receiving prayer, Lopez said

Most of the women GPAC encounters are not “abortion minded,” Lopez said, but see no possibility of keeping their babies. The ultrasound images provide a new perspective.

Two weeks prior to the machine’s arrival, Lopez put out the word that GPAC would be providing ultrasound examinations and needed pregnant clients to volunteer during the training period. The response was overwhelming..

The training required the two volunteer sonographers examine women at stages of six to 18 weeks gestation. Each hour a new client arrived. On the first day of training a woman called GPAC to receive the free exam. She was anxious to be seen but there were no openings. Lopez told the caller she would put her on a waiting list.

Minutes later an appointment for the next day cancelled and the other woman was scheduled for the 12:30 p.m. spot.

“That was a divine appointment,” Lopez said.

Sharee Valencia, an obstetrician/gynecologist who volunteered as a sonographer, said the woman arrived stressed and determined to have an abortion. While the woman’s boyfriend waited outside the examination room, Valencia learned he was the source of the mother’s anxiety, pressuring her to abort said. He repeatedly sent the woman text messages making it difficult for her to focus on the exam. Valencia allowed him in the room, believing it might reduce the distraction.

“He came in and the tension rose,” Valencia said. “He was not interested [in the ultrasound] and she was tense.”

The staff tried to remain calm, explaining to the woman the development of her six-week-old fetus. Body parts are not visible on an ultrasound at that stage, but the heartbeat was clearly audible.

The couple left without indicating their plans.

When Lopez followed up with the couple by phone a few weeks later, the mother said the pregnancy was progressing wonderfully.

“That told me we saved a baby,” Lopez said. “And that’s only in the training week!”

Valencia is eager to share the life-affirming message of GPAC. As a medical professional, she had learned to view abortion as a legitimate medical procedure. Then God began to work on her heart, impressing the scriptural tenet that everyone is special and created by God with a purpose for their lives.

 “Just because we can do it [abortion] doesn’t mean we should,” Valencia concluded. “I just want to do my part to show [the mothers] Jesus. If they choose abortion I still want to love them and help them.”

To learn more about the Psalm 139 Project or make a contribution, go to psalm139project.org or contact the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, 901 Commerce Street, Nashville, Tenn., 37203.