by Robert Earl Houston
I thought it was a really stupid joke.
Many of us, who first heard of this through the medium of social media (because you only hear about ebola on my major cable news outlets) passed a gem on, initially, that said that the Mayor of Houston, Texas, Annise Parker, had subpoenaed sermons from four pastors regarding sermons, preached across their respective pulpits, on the subjects of homosexuality, gender identity or on the mayor herself. Further, that any of those ministers who failed to comply could be held in contempt of court.
I thought it was a faux Fox News Story. I look at Fox News like I look at a fun house. Lots of clowns, shooting canons and mirrors, and of course, all anti-Obama all the time news coverage. When I saw Fox News’ brand on the report, I dismissed it as a gag and joke. But then, more of us started digging into the story and found out – it was true.
The subpoena was the result of a lawsuit filed by Pastors Jared Woodfill, Steven F. Hotze, F.N. Williams, Sr. and Max Miller against the Mayor, the City Secretary (Anna Russell) and the City of Houston. The subpoenas target five pastors in Houston – Pastors David Welch, Steve Riggle, Khan Huynh, Magda Hermida, and Hernan Castano. The lawsuit was filed due to their opposition to an ordinance known as HERO (Houston for Equal Rights Ordinance” which bans discrimination among businesses that serve the public, private employers, in housing and in city employment and city contracting. A petition drive was enacted (17,269 signatures were required for ballot approval and 50,000 signatures were submitted) and the city ruled thousands of signatures ineligible and did not place the contesting item on the ballot, triggering the suit by the ministers.
Oddly, the law firm representing the mayor, in preparation for the January 2015 court case, issued a subpoena requesting all types of items (see the link), but it is item # 12 that has created a firestorm:
“12. All speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.”
This is wrong on so many levels. First off, there is no precedent in American Jurisprudence that allows a municipality to sue or contest a congregation or a pastor on the basis of their speech. I will agree that some pastors are loose canons or suffer from preaching a gospel that is not in print – HOWEVER, even dumb speech in this country is protected speech. Even speech that I may not agree with still is protected by our U.S. Constitution, which gives no authority to a Mayor to subpoena SERMONS.
This seems, to me, to be extra-constitutional. The outcry from Pastors and Ministers across the country is defeaning (oddly, I’m yet to hear or read of any official statements from any of African-American Christian conventions, although at least two of the suing ministers are black and baptist).
The right to preach is sacred in this country. This nation which has produced orators, revivalists, prophets, and encouragers has also produced crazies, idiots, flimflam artists, bigots in robes, as well. However, it is all protected free-speech. I may not agree with what you have to say, but I have to understand that you have the right, if it’s your pulpit, to espouse it. It may not be pretty, but it’s how things are done in this nation.
The Mayor has been doing spin control. But this may be too little, too late. She began to blame her opponents for the broad original language to “deliberately misinterpret the city’s intent.” City Attorney David Feldman called it “a media circus.” But in this case, the circus did not come to town, the city by subpoena, brought the town to the circus.
This post is not to comment upon the HERO ordinance. (I don’t live in Houston, I live in Kentucky) No, my goal is to enlighten and condemn the city of Houston for coming after ministers and demanding their sermons. Religious beliefs are protected beliefs, even when they are considered anti-government. Our own Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Ralph David Abernathy, Dr. William Augustus Jones, and other ministers rallied against policies of the government including war, poverty, racism, etc., but not once was a city municipality so stupid to request copies of their sermons, as if to send out a “warning shot” to other ministers, don’t try this in your pulpits. It may not be the intent, but it is the appearance.
On Friday, Mayor Parked announced that the city (these are attorneys that are contracted) had refiled its subpoenas. On twitter she wrote: “City just refiled subpoenas in #HERO. Clarified our intent. No mention of sermons. All about petition process instructions. Never intended to interfere w/pastors & their sermons or an intrusion on religion. Our discovery motion now clearly focused on petition.”
YOUR COMMENTS ARE WELCOMED.