For the last week, you’ve probably seen headlines involving the city of Houston subpoenaing the sermons of local pastors. Because of the sensational nature of the story—and possible implications for religious liberty and the freedom of speech—the news has ignited a firestorm of controversy fueled by opinions from social media, cable news personalities and political bloggers.
But like most hot-button news items, the full story is complex and nuanced, with more at stake than a city simply being legally able to subpoena a church’s sermon notes.
How It Got Started
The whole thing first got started back in May when the Houston City Council passed Mayor Annise Parker’s (who is the nation’s first openly lesbian mayor) controversial measure called the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). The anti-discrimination ordinance would allow local businesses to be fined $5,000 for claims of discrimination based on a variety of factors, including ones directly related to the LGBT community.
Though a controversial portion of HERO, which gave transgendered citizens choices regarding restroom usage, was amended, the ordinance faced opposition from some socially conservative and religious members of the community.
The City Council ended up passing it on an 11-6 vote. Notably, HERO contained exemptions for religious institutions.
The Lawsuit Against the City
After HERO passed, a group who opposed it set out to get the 17,269 signatures required to have its repeal included on a ballot next month. When they handed in the more than 50,000 that they ended up collecting, Houston City Attorney David Feldman (a Mayor Parker appointee), claimed that many were invalid. In response, the group filed a lawsuit against the city.
After the lawsuit was filed, the city of Houston subpoenaed five local pastors asking for “all speeches, presentations or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuals or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by or approved by you or in your possession.”
Their goal was to determine if pastors improperly used their pulpits to help collect the signatures to have the repeal measure included on the ballot, which, some experts say would not be protected speech.
Initially, even though Mayor Parker says she did not have knowledge of the subpoena, she seemed to support it. Parker tweeted, “If the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game. Were instructions given on filling out anti-HERO petition?”
Then the backlash hit. Vocal critics of the subpoena, many using the “#HoustonWeHaveAProblem” hashtag, claimed it was too far reaching, and the idea of the government legally taking sermon notes didn’t sit well with religious liberty advocates. Even the ACLU, who supports HERO, said the sermons shouldn’t have been subpoenaed.
To her credit, Parker seemed to agree that the subpoena was too broad, and told reporters, “The goal [of the subpoenas was] to find out if there were specific instructions given on how the petitions should be accurately filled out. It’s not about, ‘What did you preach on last Sunday?'”
Days later, the subpoena was changed to ask for “all speeches or presentations related to HERO or the Petition prepared by, delivered by, revised by or approved by you or in your possession.” Even though it no longer includes the word “sermon,” the implications of seeking pastors’ “speeches or presentations” still seems clear.
The Case Moves Forward
The lawsuit over the signatures will be decided in January, and until all of the legal wrangling is over, HERO won’t be enforced. It’s also relevant to mention, as the Houston Chronicle notes, “None of the five pastors targeted by the subpoenas is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.”
For now, all of the attention is on how the actual signatures to get the HERO repeal on the ballot were collected—and if the five pastors overstepped their bounds and actually help gathered them from the pulpit.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.