The “Houston 5” pastors whose sermons had been subpoenaed by the city’s lesbian mayor in her fight to keep an unpopular gender nondiscrimination ordinance say the simple withdrawal of the legal demands, as Mayor Annise Parker announced Wednesday, isn’t enough.
“The fact that two straight weeks of a national firestorm ignited by these subpoenas finally drove Mayor Parker to grudgingly claim she is withdrawing them is little comfort to those of us who have had our First Amendment rights assaulted by her legal team,” said a statement issued by the pastors late Wednesday.
“If and when she withdraws these subpoenas does nothing to mitigate their willingness to trash the Constitution for her own agenda and covering up her crime of stealing our right to vote,” the statement said.
What the real focus should be, they insist, is something else.
“These subpoenas were always a distraction from the main issue that [city attorney] David Feldman simply fabricated a non-existent standard to intentionally invalidate 2,750 petitions, over half of the total, and torpedo the referendum. We were not intimidated by the subpoenas, we were not distracted by them from the main point and we will not be deterred until the voting rights of Houston citizens are restored either by the Texas courts or the mayor deciding to just obey the law.”
The dispute developed in May when the Houston council adopted a “nondiscrimination” plan supported by Parker over the objections of multiple civic and city groups. The ordinances protects men who want to dress in women’s clothes and use women’s restroom and locker room facilities.
A coalition of pastors organizations and others then gathered some 55,000 signatures in 30 days to require the city either to repeal the ordinance or put it up for a public vote. The city secretary counted about 19,000, affirming that there were more signatures than the 17,000 threshold required.
She reported she stopped counting then because the minimum had been surpassed.
But Feldman then stepped in and determined most of the petition signatures were invalid.
A lawsuit followed, and the city then responded by issuing subpoenas for five pastors who weren’t even part of the legal case against the city.
The perception of intimidation has been there ever since.
WND broke the story two weeks ago of the city’s actions against the pastors.
“Our attorney Andy Taylor has called this a ‘head fake’ and we concur,” the pastors’ statement continued. “She [Parker] has now reportedly declared that she will not allow the people to ‘vote on my civil rights.’ Added to her remarks that the LGBT Equal Rights Ordinance is ‘about my life,’ it is clear that her rights and her agenda are all that is relevant to her, not those of the citizens nor the rule of law.”
They continued: “If she is truly concerned, she will withdraw opposition to the referendum and let the people vote. The iStandSunday rally on Nov. 2 at Grace Church in Houston is more important than ever and in addition we will fight on until our voting rights are restored,” the statement said.
Spokesman Travis Weber, who heads the organization’s Center for Religious Liberty, agreed with the pastors.
“Faith,” he told WND, “is more than what is done in church on Sunday morning.”
He said the mayor’s refusal to let the repeal effort move forward and the subsequent lawsuit are significant issues.
FRC President Tony Perkins said, “Standing together across the nation, Christians have sent a strong message to Mayor Parker.”
“While we are encouraged by this evidence that the mayor is responding to pressure and withdrawing her unconstitutional subpoenas, this is about far more than subpoenas. As we have stated since the beginning of this intrusion into the private affairs of Houston churches; this is not about subpoenas, this is not about sermons, it is not even about biblical teaching on sexual immorality, it is about the political intimidation and the bullying by Mayor Parker that continues,” he said.
He will serve as host for the I Stand Sunday event, which also will feature former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Duck Dynasty’s Phil and Al Robertson, the five Houston pastors who were targeted, Ronnie Floyd of the Southern Baptist Convention and others.
It will be simulcast into more than 2,500 churches and home groups nationwide.
Weber told WND the mayor’s stated plan on Wednesday doesn’t “fully satisfy the concerns.”
“It doesn’t satisfy us in terms of believing she is [sincere] about ending the intimidation, the manner she’s used her office to suppress these pastors’ speech.”
He noted the hundreds of Bibles, as well as the stacks of sermon copies, that have been mailed to the mayor’s office since her subpoenas were reported.
“I think folks have done that to make a point … the church can’t be trampled on,” he said.
People are subject to the nation’s court-run subpoena power, he noted, but the demands need to be “relevant” and cannot be used to “harass” people.
“I think the subpoenas clearly were improper, illegal,” he said.
He explained they came about because of statements made regarding sexuality, an issue on which Parker didn’t want a discussion.
He added Parker didn’t want people commenting on “this specific ordinance,” either.
WND reported earlier Wednesday Parker’s statement of intent to withdraw the subpoenas.
She explained at a news conference that she was “directing the city legal department to withdraw the subpoenas issued to the five Houston pastors who delivered the petitions, the anti-HERO petitions, to the city of Houston an who indicated that they were responsible for the overall petition effort.”
A trial scheduled for January.
Perkins said: “The citizens of Houston have a right to vote, and Mayor Parker has denied them that right. America must see the totalitarianism that accompanies the redefinition of marriage and human sexuality, which results in citizens being denied their most fundamental rights,” he said.
“This Sunday night, thousands of Christians from across the nation will join ‘I Stand Sunday’ to support the pastors and Christians in Houston, Texas and their fundamental rights of religious freedom, freedom of speech and the right to petition their government.”
Other speakers will be Grace Community Church senior pastor Steve Riggle, Vietnamese Baptist Church senior pastor Khanh Huynh, Dave Welch of the Houston Pastors Council, Iglesia Rios de Aceite pastor Hernan Castano, Magda Hermida Ministries Founder Magda Hermida, MacGregor Palm Community Baptist Church pastor Willie Davis and Second Baptist Church pastor Ed Young.
Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley 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 subpoena threat has been withdrawn but the mayor and the city should now do the right thing and allow the people of the Houston to decide whether to repeal the ordinance.”
WND reported the city’s attorneys were insisting the plaintiffs had no claim because their petition was never “validated.”
The argument, however, contradicts the sworn testimony of the city secretary, who has the authority to validate the signatures and determined the petition drive met the minimum requirement.
The city’s brief to the state Supreme Court was filed by attorney Lynne Liberato.
After the city adopted the ordinance in May, the signatures were gathered, and the city secretary affirmed the minimum number had been obtained. But the city attorney then stepped in and invalidated most of the signatures.
The opponents filed suit, and a trial was set for January. In the discovery process, the mayor issued subpoenas for any statements, emails or “sermons” on the issue from five local pastors who were members of a coalition opposing the ordinance but not part of the lawsuit. In the uproar that followed, the city changed the word “sermons” to “speeches,” but attorneys for the ministers said it really made no difference.
The coalition asked the state Supreme Court to step in and order the city to follow its charter, which specifies that ordinances opposed by a certain number of residents shall be halted.
But in arguing now that the state Supreme Court should keep out of the case, the city said that “because the city secretary did not validate the referendum petition, the second step of the referendum processes – the city council’s ‘immediate’ reconsideration of the ordinance or popular vote – was never triggered.”
The city’s lawyers argued the city charter “does not require respondents to act, immediately or otherwise, on an unsuccessful referendum petition.”
However, the 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.”
WND reported 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.”
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]