A member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is urging Houston Mayor Annise Parker, a lesbian whose transgender “bathroom bill” is under legal challenge, to back down from her subpoenas for copies of pastors “speeches.”
“These discovery requests threaten to have a chilling effect on religious and political speech that is protected by the First Amendment,” wrote Commissioner Peter Kirsanow in a letter to the mayor.
WND broke the story of the city’s response to a lawsuit by opponents of its Equal Rights Ordinance, passed in May, which allows “gender confused” people to use public facilities designated for the opposite sex. The opponents sued when their apparently successful petition drive to place the issue on the election ballot was tossed out.
The city has demanded that five Houston pastors who are not party to the lawsuit turn over communications related to homosexual rights or the mayor, including emails, memos and “sermons,” which later was amended to be “speeches.”
The pastors, represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, have asked a judge to cancel the subpoenas.
On Thursday, the lawyers weighed in on Kirsanow’s comments.
“There’s only one answer to Houston’s shameful problem: Withdraw the subpoenas. We agree with the commissioner that Houston should do just that immediately,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley.
“Even though the pastors are not parties in this lawsuit, the subpoenas still demand from them 17 different categories of information, including their speeches and their private communications with church members. The city must respect the First Amendment and abandon its attempt to strong-arm into silence those who disagree with the city’s actions.”
Kirsanow, in his letter, said a “subpoena that requires a pastor to turn over an email to his neighbor about the details of the Equal Rights Ordinance, or a draft book chapter on the Bible and homosexuality that discusses the Equal Rights Ordinance, is clearly overbroad.”
“Yet both of these documents come within the ambit of the discovery request in the subpoena. Both the email and the draft some within the definition of ‘documents,’ and the subject matter would come within at least one item on the lengthy list,” he wrote.
The commissioner insisted no government entity “should be in the business of requiring private citizens to turn over private communications about the issues of the day.”
“Obviously this discovery request would tend to have a chilling effect on political speech, which is the speech subject to the greatest First Amendment protection.”
He said the pastors’ understanding of the ordinance and the petition is irrelevant to the litigation, insisting “the validity of the signatures is the only legitimate issue.”
“If the city wants to argue the merits of the ordinance, let the referendum proceed and let both sides make their case,” he said. “Thus, the discovery request appears instead to be a blatant attempt to punish these pastors for expressing their religiously based political views. It punishes them by subjecting them to the stress of a subpoena (though they are not parties to the litigation), impairing their right to petition the government, forcing them to comply with a patently overbroad discovery request, and…chilling future religiously-informed speech. This is an abuse of government power, and it is unavailing to claim that there is some distinction between the city and its attorneys in this instance.”
Kirsanow wrote that the city is demanding details to which it has no right.
“This discovery request impermissibly probes the religious beliefs of private citizens simply because they supported a political effort,” he wrote. “I hope that you will reconsider these ill-advised discovery requests and instruct your attorneys to withdraw them.”
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is described as an independent, bipartisan, fact-finding federal agency concerned with civil rights policies and laws.
WND reported this week Rush Limbaugh, America’s top-rated radio host, described Parker’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 Wednesday 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.”
Opponents of the ordinance charge City Attorney Dave Feldman and Mayor Parker summarily dismissed thousands of valid signatures. The city secretary, responsible for verifying the petition signatures, counted only about 19,000 of the 55,000 submitted since she already had reached the “minimum threshold” of 17,269 plus a margin. But then Felsman, working with the mayor, announced he disqualified most of the submitted signatures.
In the discovery process for a scheduled January trial, the city subpoenaed Pastor Dave Welch and four other pastors for any sermons or church communications that mention the ordinance or the mayor. Though they have been active opponents of the law, the five pastors are not party to the lawsuit.
WND reported outrage from across the nation ensued, and lawyers with the Alliance Defending Freedom asked a court to throw out the subpoenas. Amid the protest, city officials at first doubled down, with Parker stating, “If the five pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game.”
But Houston officials then said they would narrow the scope of their demand to “speeches” instead of sermons, a move ADF legal counsel Joe La Rue said was “wholly inadequate.”
In a telephone conference call where plans for a nationwide simulcast rally, IStandSunday,” on Nov. 2 were announced, Family Research Council chief Tony Perkins said the Houston pastors were just doing what they should have been doing – “preaching the word of God as it pertains to today.”
“In reality this is not about speeches,” he said. “It’s about political intimidation. … It’s about the mayor using her bully pulpit to try to silence the [church] pulpits of Houston.”
Gov. Mike Huckabee, one of the first to jump to the defense of the pastors, who are “under siege,” said, the mayor may have “unwittingly” awakened people in the pews.
“A lot of businesses and frankly some churches [have said]: ‘We don’t want to get involved. We don’t want to have people picketing us, sending us nasty emails.’ I understand that,” Huckabee said. But, “if we allow the bullying to continue I think we’re going to see the silencing of the message in pulpits.”
Dave Welch, a Houston pastor targeted by the subpoenas, said the pastors have gone too far in the fight to give up now.
“At the end of the day if we have to carry this all the way through, we will,” he said. “The question is, how could this happen in Houston?”
He said it is because voters across American have allowed “these critical institutions to fall into the hands of those who are of an opposite world view, and are intentionally deconstructing God’s created world order.”
“Elections have consequences … the ungodly use of power, and frankly just the evil abuse of that,” he said.
Welch noted that among city council members who earlier supported the mayor’s plan, there now are several who are reconsidering.
“‘This is overreach,'” he said they told him.
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]