The city of Houston, which created a firestorm of controversy by issuing subpoenas for copies of pastors’ sermons in a case over a transgender “rights” ordinance, now contends the pastors have no right to a jury trial and wants a hand-picked “special master” to review the evidence.
The dispute centers on tens of thousands of signatures collected on petitions to overturn the city’s “equal rights” ordinance adopted under the direction of lesbian mayor Annise Parker. Church members and pastors were outraged, and they collected the signatures to reverse the decision.
The city, however, simply determined that thousands of pages of signatures were invalid. In response, the lawsuit was filed to force the city to follow its charter regarding petition signatures and challenged ordinances.
Parker subpoenaed five pastors, demanding copies of any sermons related to her and “gay” issues, a move that was ridiculed by commentators such as Rush Limbaugh, America’s top-rated radio host, who described the mayor’s actions as “vile.”
“I think what that mayor in Houston has done may be one of the most vile, filthy, blatant violations of the Constitution that I have seen,” Limbaugh said on his national broadcast. “And I, for the life of me, cannot figure out why law authorities are not pursuing this. I cannot understand it.”
A short time later, the city withdrew subpoenas, but now it has submitted several motions in the case, including one asking the state district court to deprive the pastors of a jury decision, leaving it only to a judge.
The city claims that since the pastors want an “election,” it is therefore an “election dispute,” and the state does not grant the right to a jury trial for election disputes.
The plaintiffs pointed out they submitted a timely demand for a jury trial and paid the fee and, therefore, are entitled to a jury decision under the Texas Constitution.
“An election contest is a contest of an election which has already taken place. No election has occurred in this case. Calling plaintiffs’ lawsuit an ‘election contest’ does not make it an election contest,” they argued. “An election contest has a very precise and narrow definition in the Texas Election Code, and, as one might anticipate, requires that an actual election has transpired.”
They continued: “If the plaintiffs prevail on their claims, then not only is the mayor’s so-called Equal Rights Ordinance temporarily suspended, but the Houston City Council will be required to immediately convene and reconsider whether to repeal the ERO in its entirety. Council’s failure to do so then triggers a duty on behalf of the city to order an election and allow the registered voters of Houston [to] vote on whether the ERO should be repealed or not.”
The city also told the court it wanted a ruling that a special master would be appointed to hear evidence, keeping it out of the hands of a jury or a judge.
“Given the complex and technical nature of the issues presented in this lawsuit, and the difficulty of applying the various legal requirements to plaintiffs deficient but voluminous referendum petition, defendants ask this court to appoint a special master.”
The moves were too much for the plaintiffs fighting for citizen input in the city’s decisions
Steve Riggle, one of the pastors targeted by the city’s subpoenas, issued a statement to city council members.
“I have just been informed that the legal team representing the city of Houston in the legal action regarding the referendum on Mayor Parker’s ERO is asking the judge to deny the citizens of Houston the right to a jury trial. In addition to taking away the constitutional voting rights of over 1 million people in Houston, the mayor is now attempting to take away our constitutional right to a jury trial. You are implicated in her decision since you officially represent the city of Houston,” he told council members.
“I respectfully request a direct answer from you as to your position on this … DO YOU SUPPORT THE MAYOR IN HER ATTEMPT TO TAKE AWAY THE RIGHT OF THE PEOPLE TO A JURY TRIAL? YES OR NO … I am asking you to make a public statement regarding your position at the council meeting tomorrow.
“As a citizen of Houston for over 30 years and a community leader, I feel our city has suffered enough national embarrassment over this issue when what we have asked for all along is to simply let the people decide. It seems as if the city didn’t learn anything from the national outrage over the subpoenas issued to pastors in our community by Mayor Parker and City Attorney David Feldman. What will happen when our city and the nation finds out that now the mayor will not allow this trial on her actions to subvert the right of the people to vote to be decided by a jury? There comes a time when all of you who serve on this elected council need to stand up and let your voice be heard that you will no longer allow this mayor to subvert the right of the people in pursuing her personal agenda. THAT TIME IS NOW!”
A hearing was scheduled Friday regarding the city’s demands.
WND broke the story about the city’s subpoenas to the “Houston 5” pastors for copies of their sermons and other communications with their congregations regarding homosexual rights.
The pastors later called for an investigation of city hall’s actions in the dispute, which also included negating an apparently valid petition effort against the ordinance.
“There is a growing call for the attorney general of Texas to investigate this,” said Riggle senior pastor of Grace Community Church, at the time.
Parker, a lesbian, has described the fight over the ordinance as “personal,” according to a report.
The dispute arose early last year when the city adopted a “nondiscrimination” ordinance recognizing transgender rights in the city over the opposition of many groups. Critics then organized and collected some 55,000 signatures to force either a repeal or a vote.
The city secretary stopped counting at about 19,000, affirming that the threshold of some 17,000 signatures had been met. But the city attorney stepped in and imposed several requirements, which opponents said were not in the city charter, and threw out most of the signatures. In response, opponents filed suit. The city then issued the subpoenas as part of the discovery process leading up to a January trial.
Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley of the Alliance Defending Freedom, which has represented the pastors, said: “The mayor really had no choice but to withdraw these subpoenas, which should never have been served in the first place. The entire nation – voices from every point of the spectrum left to right – recognize the city’s action as a gross abuse of power. We are gratified that the First Amendment rights of the pastors have triumphed over government overreach and intimidation. The First Amendment protects the right of pastors to be free from government intimidation and coercion of this sort.”
He continued: “But the subpoenas were only one element of this disgraceful episode. The scandal began with another abuse of power when the city of Houston arbitrarily threw out the valid signatures of thousands of voters. The city did this all because it is bent on pushing through its deeply unpopular ordinance at any cost.”
The city has claimed the petition signatures never were validated. But city secretary Anna Russell, who has served Houston for more than four decades, was asked by plaintiffs’ attorney Andy Taylor in a deposition about validation of the signatures.
Russell had explained it was her understanding “that the [city] charter provides that the city secretary determine the number of qualified voters who sign the petition.”
Taylor then asked: “And based on that understanding, you did that; and the result of your work was that 17,846 signatures had been validated. And that was more than the minimum number necessary, correct?”
“That’s correct,” she replied.
WND also reported a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights wrote to Parker, urging her to back down from her demand for copies of pastors “speeches.”
“I write to express my concern regarding subpoenas requesting extensive information from pastors who are involved in the Equal Rights Ordinance Referendum,” wrote Commissioner Peter Kirsanow. “These discovery requests threaten to have a chilling effect on religious and political speech that is protected by the First Amendment.”
The mayor’s contact information:
Mayor Annise D. Parker
City of Houston
P.O. Box 1562 Houston, Texas 77251
Phone: (713) 837-0311
Email: [email protected]