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.