A move by Houston officials to bolster their defense of a "non-discrimination" ordinance by issuing subpoenas demanding pastors turn over sermons dealing with homosexuality has stirred such an outrage across America that 1,000 people per hour were signing a petition in opposition.
The Web petition set up by the Family Research Council had collected 25,000 names in 24 hours.
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The latest total was nearly 38,000 names.
The signers are standing "unapologetically" with the Houston pastors whose sermons were subpoenaed, and their churches are calling on the city of Houston "to retract their demands and issue a clear statement in support of the free speech of all people."
FRC noted Houston Mayor Annise Parker's office has filed a subpoena demanding that five pastors who oppose the ordinance turn over sermons, emails, text messages and even communications with members of their congregations.
The petition says Parker "has breached the wall of separation between the state and the church."
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"This attack on religious freedom and the freedom of speech should be universally repudiated by all Americans who value our constitutional freedoms," the petition says.
"Thomas Jefferson once wrote that 'religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions.' The pulpit is to be governed only by the Word of God, and the chilling effect of government scrutiny of our pastors is unconstitutional, and unconscionable. Mayor Parker's use of her bully pulpit to silence pulpit freedom must be stopped in its tracks."
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said the mayor "made it quite clear throughout the entire 'bathroom bill' debate that she'll use her bully pulpit to bully pulpits across Houston."
He said that despite reports, the mayor's office has not withdrawn the subpoenas.
"The city may eventually backpedal on a narrow portion of the subpoena dealing with sermons, but are still demanding pastors' emails and other private communications," he said.
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Perkins said pastors "not only have the right to speak to the moral issues of the day – but an obligation to do so."
"The pulpit is to be governed only by the Word of God," he said.
Officials on Friday said the city had refiled the subpoenas leaving out the demand for "sermons," but ADF officials said the move accomplished nothing.
"The city of Houston still doesn't get it. It thinks that by changing nothing in its subpoenas other than to remove the word 'sermons' that it has solved the problem. That solves nothing. Even though the pastors are not parties in this lawsuit, the subpoenas still demand from them 17 different categories of information – information that encompasses speeches made by the pastors and private communications with their church members. As we have stated many times, the problem is the subpoenas themselves; they must be rescinded entirely. The city must respect the First Amendment and abandon its illegitimate mission to invade the private communications of pastors for the purpose of strong-arming them into silence in a lawsuit that concerns nothing more than the authenticity of citizen petitions," said ADF's Erik Stanley.
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An analysis from the Media Research Center found broadcast networks ABC, CBS and NBC had "completely censored" news of Parker's attempt to obtain the sermons.
MRC President Brent Bozell commented that when the government "mandates what a pastor can or cannot say, and criminalizes preaching the Bible, we're no different than Red China."
"How in the name of God is that not national news?" he asked.
Bozell said freedom of religion, expressed at the pulpit, is "a sacred right in this country."
"If you lose that, then religion itself is outlawed unless expressly approved by the state. This is unheard of in America. It is unconscionable that the 'news' media are suppressing this from the public," he said.
MRC Vice President for Culture Dan Gainor said there was a time when journalists considered faith sacred.
"Now the LGBT community gets that treatment and Christians are ignored or abused by the press," he said. "A radical, left-wing mayor aims the full force of a major city on five pastors and demands 16 different types of information from them and … nothing. The networks spent more than four minutes on a movie about male strippers and a 'Hunks and Hounds' calendar instead."
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, came out vehemently in favor of the pastors earlier in the week, calling the mayor's move unworthy of a Texan and unAmerican.
At a rally for pastors, he said: "As we've seen it across the country, our hearts are particularly broken that we are seeing it here in Houston, Texas. This week, the government of Houston, Texas, sent a subpoena to silence prayers. The government of Houston, Texas, demanded of the pastors, hand over your sermons to the government. The city of Houston has no power – no legal authority – to silence the church. Caesar has no jurisdiction over the pulpit, and when you subpoena one pastor, you subpoena every pastor."
He pointed out that the nation recognized at its founding that citizens' rights "do not come from government, but they come from the Almighty God."
Read "Speechless: Silencing the Christians," the book by Don Wildmon that introduces the "Christian bashers, a coalition of liberal secularists, homosexual activists and Fortune 500 companies waging war on Christianity. Why? Because they can get what they want only by driving Christians out of public life.
Cruz said if mayor and the city attorney and the city government want to hear sermons, let me invite you, come join us to hear the sermons Sunday morning. … We will welcome you with warm embrace, we will break bread and wine and fellowship and worship together."
Court asked to quash
WND reported first on the development Monday, when the Alliance Defending Freedom asked a court to quash Parker's subpoenas for sermons.
The lawsuit was filed by voters after a petition drive to put the ordinance on the election ballot obtained 50,000 signatures, more than three times the required number, and was certified by the city secretary. The mayor and city attorney, however, claimed there were not enough valid signatures and threw out the petition.
The city responded with a legal demand to obtain copies of sermons of pastors who were not even part of the lawsuit.
Amid widespread criticism, city officials at first doubled down on their efforts, with Parker, who has said the issue is all about her lesbian lifestyle, stating, "If the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game."
But the Washington Times reported city officials then issued a statement that they would try to "narrow the scope" of their demands, a move Joe La Rue, ADF legal counsel, said was "wholly inadequate."
"These sermons, emails and texts have nothing to do with whether the coalition gathered enough signatures to qualify for the ballot," he told the newspaper.
Christiana Holcom, ADF litigation counsel, dismissed the notion that the city had in any way backed off the demands.
"The shame that the city of Houston has brought upon itself is real, but the claim that it has changed course is not. The city has so far taken no concrete action to withdraw the subpoenas. Furthermore, the subpoenas themselves are the problem – not just their request for pastors' sermons," she said.
"The city is not off the hook from its illegitimate request for emails, text messages, and other communications in which these pastors, who are not even party to this lawsuit, may have disagreed with the mayor. The way to fix this is to withdraw the subpoenas entirely. Otherwise, the city's and the mayor's overtures are simply more window-dressing intended to shield them from public scrutiny."
Fox News commentator Todd Starnes, wrote: "We can no longer remain silent. We must stand together - because one day – the government might come for your pastor."
Other commentators agreed.
"Furious with local pastors for leading the pushback [to the bathroom bill], Parker decided to get her revenge by ordering a Soviet-style crackdown on area churches," an online statement said.
"In a story that's spreading like wildfire, the mayor had the nerve to subpoena pastors for their sermons, text messages, photographs, electronic files, calendars, and emails – 'all communications with members of your congregation' on topics like homosexuality and gender identity.
"If she thought her religious 'inquisition' would scare pastors, she's got another thin[k] coming. Local Christians are more outraged than ever, igniting a firestorm that could awaken a sleeping giant in churches from coast to coast," the statement said.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., joined in: "No minister, anywhere, should ever have to submit a sermon to a government censor."
Enabling sexual predators
The lawsuit challenging Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance alleges the city violated its own charter in its adoption of the law, which in May designated homosexuals and transgender persons as a protected class.
Critics say the measure effectively enables sexual predators who dress as women to enter female public bathrooms, locker rooms and shower facilities. A coalition of activists that includes area pastors filed suit Aug. 6 against the city and Parker after officials announced a voter petition to repeal the measure didn't have enough signatures to qualify for the election ballot.
According to a deposition from Houston city Secretary Anna Russell, her office had counted 19,177 signatures in the petition to repeal the measure and then stopped, because the qualifying number of 17,269 signatures already had been reached, with a margin.
The pastors' coalition explained, "Her position is that it would be a waste of resources to continue to count when we clearly and easily had met the city charter standard."
However, the deposition revealed that the mayor and the city attorney, David Feldman, then simply overturned the result.
Russell said she was told to add the following statement to her count: "According to the city attorney's office and reviewed by the city secretary the analysis of the city attorney’s office, 2,750 pages containing 16,010 signatures do not contain sufficient acknowledgment as required by the charter. Therefore, according to the city attorney’s office only 2,449 pages containing 15,249 signatures can lawfully be considered toward the signatures required."
The lawsuit was filed shortly later.
'Big Brother overlords'
The city's subpoena of the pastors, ADF contends, doesn't meet the requirements of state law that requires such efforts "be reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence, not be overly broad, seek only information that is not privileged and relevant to the subject matter of the litigation, and not cause undue burden or harassment."
ADF said city officials are upset about the voter lawsuit and is "illegitimately demanding that the pastors, who are not party to the lawsuit, turn over their constitutionally protected sermons and other communications simply so the city can see if the pastors have ever opposed or criticized the city."
"City council members are supposed to be public servants, not 'Big Brother' overlords who will tolerate no dissent or challenge," said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley. "In this case, they have embarked upon a witch hunt, and we are asking the court to put a stop to it."
ADF Litigation Counsel Christiana Holcomb said the city's subpoena of sermons and other pastoral communications is needless and unprecedented.
"The city council and its attorneys are engaging in an inquisition designed to stifle any critique of its actions. Political and social commentary is not a crime; it is protected by the First Amendment," she said.