The openly lesbian mayor of Houston who created a national furor by allowing subpoenas to be issued by the city for the sermons of several area Christian pastors has been named defendant in a lawsuit by some of those same pastors who are alleging civil-rights violations.
“Each plaintiff brings this civil rights lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. [Paragraph] 1983 for defendant [Mayor Annise] Parker’s wrongful actions under color of state law depriving each of them of procedural and substantive due process under the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, as well as to vindicate their liberty interests under the Bill of Rights and Amendments to the United States Constitution,” the complaint, filed Monday in Harris County District Court, says.
The fight is over a transgender ordinance Parker pushed through the city council more than a year ago. Some members of the Houston Area Pastor Council and other pastors formed an alliance to collect signatures to force the city either to overturn the ordinance or allow voters to have their say.
Although the city secretary certified enough signatures had been turned in, the mayor and city attorney manipulated the results to avoid allowing a popular vote.
Eventually the state Supreme Court stepped into the fight, during which time the city had subpoenaed the pastors’ sermons, and called a halt. The justices ordered the council to either repeal or put to a popular vote the ordinance, which had drawn strong opposition for opening ladies’ public restrooms and locker rooms to men who claimed they were women.
“If the city council does not repeal the ordinance by August 24, 2015, then by that date the city council must order that the ordinance be put to popular vote during the November 2015 election,” the ruling said.
The court also suspended any enforcement of the ordinance.
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The lawsuit seeks damages as allowed under federal law, attorneys’ fees, the costs of the suit and other relief.
A major and unprecedented focal point of the conflict has been the city’s demands for the Christian ministers’ sermons.
“Now known as the ‘Houston 5,’ several of whom are plaintiffs herein, these Houston pastors valiantly fought the subpoenas by filing motions and briefing in the court from which the subpoenas had been issued,” it explains. “Surprisingly, defendant Parker did not back down or apologize. Instead, she and her then-City Attorney, David Feldman, embraced what had transpired and strongly defended their unconstitutional subpoenas and illegal actions.
“For example, David Feldman said: ‘Some [petition] signatures were acquired at churches which make the sermons fair game.’ Feldman also said, ‘If they choose to do this inside the church, choose to do this from the pulpit, then they open the door to the questions being asked.’ The major did the same thing. On Twitter, defendant Parker echoed her city attorney’s defense of the subpoenas: ‘If the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game.’
“Thus, by improperly issuing unconstitutional subpoenas, and by refusing to withdraw such subpoenas when given the opportunity and ratifying those wrongful actions instead, Defendant Parker violated the constitutional rights of the Houston 5, emanating from the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,” the complaint says.
The case drew national attention when WND broke the story that Parker had issued subpoenas to the five pastors for copies of their sermons and other communications. After the story was turbocharged by posting on the Drudge Report, the pastors called for an investigation of city hall’s actions.
A subsequent nationwide outpouring of criticism prompted officials to drop the subpoenas.
Rush Limbaugh at the time called the subpoenas “one of the most vile, filthy, blatant violations of the Constitution that I have seen.”
Andy Taylor, an attorney who has worked with the pastors throughout, said, “The purpose of this lawsuit is not to retaliate for her wrongful behavior, but instead to create deterrence to all future Mayor Parkers to let them know once and for all that if you are going to violate the voting rights of over a million people there will be a day of reckoning.”
Americans had protested the subpoenas by sending Parker thousands of Bibles and asking her to read them.
The transgender ordinance now is being scheduled to be on the ballot in November.
The mayor issued a statement on the new development.
“This new lawsuit is not about civil rights or religious freedom. It’s about politics. It is being waged by a small group that wants to take Houston backward instead of moving it forward,” she said.
She explained Houston now is “a diverse mixture of residents who get along and are accepting of each other’s differences. It is this open and inclusive atmosphere that helps make Houston attractive to new residents, new business, major sporting events like the Super Bowl and more.”
She said the image would be “hurt” by the pastors’ action.
The plaintiffs include Pastors F.N. Williams Sr., Hernan Castano, Magda Hermida and Khanh Huynh, as well as the Houston Area Pastor Council.
Parker’s plan would have allowed biological males in women’s restrooms. It also would have criminalized Christian service businesses who might decline to serve a same-sex ceremony.
“I was part of the Civil Rights movement and marched with Dr. King and Dr. Abernathy for our voting rights. This is America and about all Americans’ rights, not just minorities,” Williams said.
Opponents of the transgender ordinance had collected some 55,000 signatures for repeal. The city secretary stopped counting after she reached the required number for a recall of 17,269, plus a margin of error.
The city, however, claimed that only a few thousand were valid, based on rules they said needed to be applied even though they were not in the city charter, such as legibility issues.
The state Supreme Court said, “We agree with the relators that the city secretary certified their petition and thereby invoked the city council’s ministerial duty to reconsider and repeal the ordinance or submit it to popular vote. The city secretary unequivocally stated that ‘I am able to certify that … the number of signatures verified on the petition submitted on July 3, 201, is 17,846’ and that only 17,269 were required.
“Once the city council received the city secretary’s certification, it had a ministerial duty to act,” the court said. “According to the charter, following the city secretary’s certification, ‘the council shall immediately reconsider such ordinance or resolution and, if it does not entirely repeal the same, shall submit it to popular vote at the next city general election.'”
The opinion said: “Faced with the city secretary’s certification, the city council had no discretion but to repeal the ordinance or proceed with the election process. If the city council believed the city secretary abused her discretion in certifying the petition or otherwise erred in her duties, it was nevertheless obligated to fulfill its duties under the charter and thereafter seek any affirmative relief to which it might be entitled.
“But the city council did not do so. Instead, it refused to fulfill its ministerial duty, forcing the petition organizers to file suit.”
The case also cites the city’s attempt to deprive voters of their right to vote on the issue.