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 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.