In an unjustified move, the city of Houston has issued subpoenas to a number of Houston-area religious leaders. The subpoenas come in response to the pastors challenging a new city ordinance which, among other things, would make it legal for members of the opposite sex to enter the other’s restroom.

The sweeping request calls for the pastors to turn over communications including, but not limited to, “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.”  Alliance Defending Freedom is representing these clergymen in hopes to quell this illegitimate intrusion of their freedom of speech.

Government violations of First Amendment rights are on the upswing. Several years ago the IRS was asking tea party leaders to disclose the content of their prayers. In Texas, the state’s ethics commission is trying to squelch the speech and press rights of conservative groups.

Following the passage of the new ordinance, religious leaders assisted in gathering nearly 52,000 signatures for a petition to repeal it (only 17,000 signatures were needed). City Secretary Anna Russell counted and verified a sufficient number of signatures; shortly after, City Attorney David Feldman inserted himself into the process refuting her claim and saying not enough verifiable signatures had been obtained.

Refusing to give up, supporters of the petition filed a lawsuit over the issue. The pastors, who aren’t involved in the litigation, are nonetheless being attacked for speaking out against an ordinance they disagree with on moral grounds.

The city is using its power to violate the pastors’ First Amendment rights. 

The Church Autonomy Doctrine has long protected the free exercise of religion from government intervention or interference. So why does the City of Houston feel the need to interfere with the religious dialogue between pastors and their congregations?

The Houston Chronicle reported David Feldman saying, “The pastors made their sermons relevant to the case by using the pulpit to do political organizing.”

Regardless, Houston’s attorneys will have a hard time making the case that internal church deliberations are directly related to their current case.

According to Alliance Defending Freedom, the subpoenas are “overbroad, unduly burdensome, harassing, and vexatious,” and I can’t help but agree. It seems that Mayor Parker and her allies are using this as a way to send a message to their opponents: if you stand against them, they will do what they can to silence you.

If a city will attempt to silence religious leaders from vocally advocating for what they believe in, who is to say they won’t use the same intimidating tactics on any other constituent who disagrees with their position?

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.

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