Houston’s Pastor Subpoenas: A Meme Made for Fox News

The conservative media world is today aflame over subpoenas served on pastors, by the City of Houston, in litigation brought by activists who claim the City wrongfully rejected their effort to put a recently-passed amendment to the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance up for a voter referendum. The recent change to the law would bar businesses from denying a transgender person entry to a restroom consistent with his or her gender identity. After the city attorney ruled that many of the signatures collected for the referendum petition were invalid, the petitioners no longer had the requisite number of signatures to place the referendum on the ballot.

The subpoenas, served on pastors who are not litigants in the lawsuit, seek a broad range of documents and communications, including sermons, regarding their statements on homosexuality, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), and the petition process. Represented by the religious right legal firm Alliance Defending Freedom, the pastors are seeking to quash the subpoenas.

Christian right activists in Houston who opposed the HERO and led the petition drive have long disparaged the city’s mayor, Annise Parker, because she is a lesbian. As the Texas Freedom Network reported in 2011, when Parker was running for reelection, Dave Welch, one of the subpoenaed pastors, released a video in which he said:

It is astounding to have to say that most Houston citizens – including most Christians and pastors – are still unaware of the radical nature of Mayor Annise Parker’s commitment to imposing the full “San Francisco Style” Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered, etc. agenda. … We have a sin-sick city and we need the power of God through Jesus Christ changing lives and changing City Hall!

Conservatives have jumped on the issue as evidence of their long-standing claims of government overreach, government hostility to Christians, and the ultimate result of LGBT rights: infringement of the religious rights of Christians. “Big Brother knows no bounds,” tweeted Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). “Persecution of Christians in US begins led by openly gay mayor of Houston,” tweeted former Rep. Allen West.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a Houston native, chimed in with a statement: “For far too long, the federal government has led an assault against religious liberty, and now, sadly, my hometown of Houston is joining the fight.  This is wrong.  It’s unbefitting of Texans, and it’s un-American.”

But even cooler heads have a point: even if not evidence of a big bad government plot to oppress Christians, the subpoenas represent a strange overreach, one that additionally failed to foresee the predictable parlaying of the incident into a conservative cause celebre. As Rachel Held Evans tweeted, “I support LGBT equality but the subpoena thing in Houston seems intrusive & counterproductive. Violates liberty + feeds persecution complex.”

Rob Boston, Director of Communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a statement, “Government authorities have the right to subpoena pastors and even ask for sermons if there is a reasonable suspicion of wrong-doing. For example, if a pastor delivered a sermon and urged his flock to engage in illegal activities, law enforcement officials could investigate it.” But, Boston went on, “That doesn’t appear to be the case here. The targeted pastors are not even parties to the lawsuit, and the scope of the subpoenas is strikingly broad. This has the look of a fishing expedition. I’m not surprised that the pastors are resisting the subpoenas, and, assuming there is not more to this story than has been reported, I think they might be successful.”

Parker signaled today that she was surprised by the breadth of the subpoenas and suggested that they may be narrowed. According to the Wall Street Journal, the mayor’s spokesperson said in a statement:

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.

But on Twitter, Greg Scott, ADF’s vice president for media communications, cautioned his followers not to believe that the city would narrow the subpoenas. Scott pointed to a Parker tweet time-stamped around midnight today, reading, “If the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game. Were instructions given on filling out anti-HERO petition?-A,” suggesting that the city was attempting to discover whether the petition organizers knew some of the collected signatures may have been invalid.

A spokesperson for the mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from RD.

Even if the city does go to court tomorrow and narrow the the subpoenas’ scope, the damage has already been done, as Scott’s tweet suggests: for conservatives, the cause celebre is already in motion, and is unlikely to be dialed back.

Andy Taylor, the lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case, is headlining a fundraiser next week for the US Pastors’ Council, which is headed by Welch. Tickets for the event range from $1,000 to $10,000, and Mike Huckabee is also an invited speaker. Taylor’s theme, “A Battle the Nation Is Watching: Is the Rule of Law More Powerful than City Hall?” seems serendipitous for the conservative agitators against the supposedly oppressive state. It’s almost as if the city of Houston wanted to help the Pastors’ Council raise money.

UPDATE: The Rev. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance and an advocate for both LGBT rights and religious liberty, has penned a letter to Houston’s Mayor Parker and City Attorney David Feldman, opposing the subpoenas. “I will work as hard to defend the freedom of speech from the pulpit for those with whom I disagree, as I will to defend the rights of the LGBT community. As long as a sermon is not inciting violence, the government has no business getting involved in the content of ministers’ sermons,” Gaddy wrote.

  • Frank6548

    Further proof of the persecution of biblical Christianity. Wake up Christians!

  • Andre M

    You shame Christ, Frank.

  • Frank6548

    If you say that I know for sure I am on the right tradk with Christ. Thanks for the confirmation!

  • Andre M

    How proud and reckless you are. How foolish. How sad.

  • climate3

    We do need to find out who those pro bono attorneys were and why they went so far.

  • giant slor

    I guarantee you didn’t read the article as it’s nothing but repudiation of the subpoenas by liberal groups and individuals. How does that factor into your persecution narrative?

  • Joseph Arechavala

    Pretty stupid move to try to get a subpoena in the first place. They should’ve known it would backfire.

  • Rmj

    Civil discovery in Texas is very broad, and a judge issued these subpoenas. It may be the same judge, upon reflection, want to withdraw them.

    Let the court sort it out.

    As for wanting to read a minister’s sermons, where’s the harm? They’re given in public anyway. It’s not like they are diary entries.

    This is barely interesting as a legal matter, frankly.

  • Dsarge

    Thanks for sharing this. Nice to see people defending the rights of those they disagree with.

  • NelsonRobison

    You say that you want to find out who the attorneys are. To what purpose do you want to find out? Why is the information necessary? I have to wonder what is the motivation behind finding out who these attorneys are?

  • ortcutt

    No one has a right to not be subpoenaed unless they have some legal privilege. There is marital privilege, attorney-client privilege, even priest-penitent privilege in some cases, but I’ve never heard of pastors having blanket privilege with respect to documents generally. If the persons subpoenaed think that the subpoenas are overly broad, they are free to dispute them with a judge at a hearing. That’s how our legal system works. They should stop moaning and deal with it. I get the impression over and over again that religious people don’t think the laws apply to them. That they are under god, but not under the laws of the jurisdiction in which they live. I’m really, really sick of it. They aren’t above the law.

  • apotropoxy

    Attention Christians! Your ministers have a constitutional right to speak their minds from the pulpit. Your institutions do not have a constitutional right to tax exemptions. That is a statutory allowance.

  • Jim Reed

    We know when conservatives are manipulating the country they like to hide who they are.

  • Rmj

    Most people think the law doesn’t apply to them, but should apply harshly to everyone else.

    This is a lawsuit against the city, not by the city. A defendant in a lawsuit is entitled to find information that might be used against it, or that might provide it a legal defense. Plaintiffs in lawsuits, and their friends and associates, sometimes find that discovery process “invasive.” But the price of bringing a lawsuit is that you, and perhaps your associates/friends/family, may find themselves subject to disclosure, if not true scrutiny.

    It’s the way the system works; but most people don’t want the system to work except to get them just what they want. The only thing unusual about this is they plaintiffs were able to get a couple of Texas politicians to chime in; then again, it’s the election season.

  • allgoodthings

    Awesome. Another Millennial brat fails to understand the First Amendment or the principles of freedom that made the country that they benefit from every day.

    The FBI would like to see copies of ALL of those criticisms that you wrote of George Bush in college including the ones that use the F word. You know just to make sure that there is no treasonous language.

    You good with that, children?

  • allgoodthings

    And you completely miss the mark.

    Your political correctness is not “Christianity””.

  • Andre M

    You shame Christ.

  • Andre M

    You know nothing about me and lie through your teeth. You are a hypocrite and your arrogant pride is a shame to Christ.

  • Frank6548

    Of course I read and it was surprised that RD actually gets something right. The fact remains that this travesty, although now backed away from, is absolute proof that Christianity is being persecuted in this country. And it will only get worse unless Christians stand up boldy.

  • Frank6548

    Feel free to work to change that.

  • Andre M

    Your smug self-satisfaction and pride are a shame to Christ, Frank.

  • Andre M

    Your self-righteousness and pride are a shame to Christ.

  • Frank6548

    I understand. You have nothing of substance to add. Keep up the repetition!

  • Andre M

    You never have anything of substance to offer on RD. You always repeat yourself. You shamelessly sin on here on a regular basis. And you are an embarrassment to Christ for it.

  • Frank6548

    Excellent… following my instructions as I commanded.

  • Andre M

    Does your pride know no bounds? Would Christ speak this way? How embarrassing this is for you and for God.

  • Frank6548

    Excellent… Excellent!

  • Andre M

    Yes, Frank, you have commanded me to continue speaking the truth of your sin. And I will oblige!

  • Frank6548

    You’ve reached a new level of pitiful. Sad.

  • Andre M

    You think being called out on your sin and the way you shame Christ is pitiful? Maybe you really are a lost cause, Frank. How embarrassing for you.

  • joeyj1220

    .. I have often failed to follow my own advice when it comes to Crankie Frankie

  • allgoodthings

    Christ cannot be shamed by any man.

  • allgoodthings

    Christ is God and cannot be shamed by any man.

  • allgoodthings

    Christ cannot be shamed by you or any man.

  • allgoodthings

    Christ cannot be shamed by any man.

  • allgoodthings

    Christ cannot be shamed by – any man.

  • Andre M

    You claim to follow Christ, but you sin openly. You shame yourself and bring shame to God.

  • Andre M

    You claim to follow Christ, but you sin openly. You bring shame to yourself and you bring shame to God.

  • allgoodthings

    “Chilling effect”

    Words used by proggies during the Bush years but never during Obama’s term.

  • Andre M

    You besmirch the name of Christ. You are a false follower.

  • allgoodthings

    Yes . And the preachers should be able subpoena government documents …like Lois Lerner’s disappearing emails, the EPA’s disappearing emails , the disappearing DOJ documents on Fast and Furious, Holder’s contempt, Lerner’s contempt etc etc.

    We can always trust that subpoenas will be properly responded to by the government also , right?

    Look up the definition of tyranny and pray for a while.

  • Andre M

    You are a false follower of Christ and you besmirch His name.

  • Andre M

    You speak an anti-Gospel and bring misery to those who listen to you.

  • JamesMMartin

    Boy is THIS a can of worms.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/jonmspangler Jon Spangler

    A fair trial outcome depends on comprehensive discovery so that ALL of the facts are available in court. If Christian pastors–or any religious leaders–are involved in political activity, they are required to participate in it legally and ethically, just like anyone else. Collusion, obstruction, conspiracy, and corruption are not excused simply because one claims that one is being religious.

  • Bellerose

    If by persecution, you mean validly defending themselves from a lawsuit then sure. They aren’t stopping Christians from saying what they like or policing speech, they’re being sued and they’re looking for any instructions these pastors may have given signature collectors. That’s a perfectly valid part of the discovery process.

  • http://www.devonnollforpresident2012.org Devon J. Noll

    Since these subpoenas were issued by an outside law firm working for the city, it is very possible that the mayor and DA did not know about them, as many law firms issue these things during discovery and they are usually fairly broad. I suspect that they are looking for information about how the pastors addressed the HERO discussion in their sermons and if they crossed the line to the point of encouraging election fraud.

    Sermons are not confidential communications and are part of the church records of their activities in a variety of arenas. Most of those areas are within the scope of their religious charities, education, and services, but since the 1970s churches have been more involved in the political arena than is usually allowable by law. IN Texas where religious Christian organizations seem to control just about everything in their daily political lives, the level of disallowed signatures was so large as to send up red flags of possible fraud and as such any activities within the church spectrum, including the sermons, are fair game. This is not an attempt to suppress religious speech or liberty, but rather an attempt to find out whether these pastors encouraged illegal activities by members of their congregations in a political, election activity.

    Pastors, especially evangelical ones like Ted Cruz’s father, seem to have forgotten that churches are suppose to remain politically neutral, not force their views on others, and teach about the word of God, not preach hate towards their fellow human beings. It is the kind of preaching of politics and hate from the pulpit that is driving many people out of the churches today, not any secular drive to persecute the churches. Perhaps if pastors are so worried about what they said in their sermons, then they have more to hide than just their paranoia, in which case they have abandoned their calling in favor of political power, just as Ted Cruz and his father have done.

    Rev. Devon J. Noll
    New Word Universal Fellowship Church
    Christmas Valley, OR
    http://www.newworduniversalfellowship.org

  • Frank6548

    Repeating your nonsense only makes you look more and more foolish.

  • Frank6548

    You are more than welcome to not understand what’s really going on.

    Wake up Christians and stand up boldly for your faith!

  • Andre M

    There is nothing foolish in speaking the truth. I would have thought you’d know that. How sad you are. How silly you look.

  • Frank6548

    See above. Sad.

  • Andre M

    How sad it is that you refuse to acknowledge the truth of your sinful pride and arrogance. How embarrassing for you to have it displayed and called out here for the world to see.

  • Frank6548

    Rinse, repeat. How embarrassing for you.

  • Andre M

    Your refusal to listen to God can’t mean anything good for you, Frank. Hear the truth and repent of your wicked pridefulness, or look like a fool.

  • Frank6548

    See above.

  • Andre M

    Your repetition makes you look like a fool, Frank. Don’t you see that? How sad for you. How embarrassing!

  • Andre M

    Frank, you shame the name of Christ. You are a false-follower and seek to undermine all His good works.

  • Frank6548

    Truly you are clueless. Oh well. At least everyone knows it now so they can safely dismiss anything you say. Well done. You are the best support I have!

  • Frank6548

    Aside from your lack of understanding around the situation, is everything an advertisement for you?

  • Andre M

    Frank, are you so deluded? You are an embarrassment to Christianity and yet you keep putting yourself on display. How sad for you!

  • Andre M

    Frank, don’t embarrass yourself or shame the name of Christ any longer. Can’t you see how you sadden Him? How embarrassing this is for you.

  • Frank6548

    You have moved from sad to pitiful. Feel free to have the last word afterall it’s all you have.

  • Andre M

    You refuse to listen to the truth, Frank, and you make Christianity look ridiculous. You should give up your pride & arrogance & hypocrisy and turn to Jesus. Accept his forgiveness and change your ways, so you no longer look like a fool. Your display is pitiful, Frank.

  • Bellerose

    Right, I live in a very liberal part of the US and there’s a Christian Church every half mild from me. A vast majority of the population is Christian which isn’t changing any time soon because a vast majority of immigrants are also Christian. And yet, somehow, there’s this notion that Christianity is threatened or under attack. Claims that Christians can’t talk about how they think homosexuality is evil despite the fact that I can turn on the radio and hear Christians saying exactly that. Heck, I can turn on the TV and see that.

    Nobody is saying you can’t believe in god or say what you like. People being critical of comments or beliefs does not equate to persecution. Just people people think you’re small minded for opposing homosexuality (or abortions, or whatever) doesn’t mean you’re somehow facing persecution.

  • Frank6548

    I am sorry you are so blind as to not see reality.

    For the rest of us Christians stand up boldly or your expression of faith will be taken away from you.

  • Husband of the Moonlight

    One is compelled by the actions of all of these “religious people” there in Houston to ask if you are “people of faith”, why not let your God handle the problem? It would seem to “this Atheist” that your need to “legislate” the conduct of so many others is a subliminal reflection of your LACK of faith.