Politics

Houston Pastors Dig In

Religious leaders insist their constitutional rights are being threatened

Houston Pastors Dig In

Matthew Paulson

Both the City of Houston and a group of Christian pastors are sticking to their guns in a dispute over what may have been communicated in churches in the city.

Houston’s legal department has narrowed the scope of its demand that pastors hand over certain communications, excluding sermons they have given in their churches, especially those concerning homosexuality.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker said that sermons were originally included in a list of items being subpoenaed simply due to overzealous pro-bono attorneys who had been helping the city.

And the city maintains that it is not interested in interfering with the churches’ doctrine but simply wants information on how a petition drive was handled by the churches.

But pastors, and the public interest law firm representing them, still maintain that their religious liberty is being violated.

“They are saying that since they removed the word ‘sermon,’ it’s okay to come after the pastors. We don’t agree because even though they removed the word ‘sermon,’ they left the word ‘speech,’” one of the five pastors, Hernan Castano, said Tuesday. “The Bill of Rights talks about freedom of speech. What we did was done through the pulpit, and it’s based on God’s word, so where do we set up the line? When they step into our church buildings, do they check our doctrine now? There are things that need to be answered.”

Castano is senior pastor of Iglesia Rios de Aceite and director of Hispanic Church Development at Houston Area Pastor Council. Last month, Houston city attorneys issued subpoenas demanding a group of pastors turn over any sermons dealing with homosexuality, gender identity or Annise Parker, the city’s first openly lesbian mayor. Those ministers who fail to comply could be held in contempt of court.

“This is an attempt to chill pastors from speaking to the cultural issues of the day,” Steve Riggle, senior pastor of Grace Community Church, told Fox News. “The mayor would like to silence our voice.

The subpoenas were issued as a fact-finding measure to help the city prepare for a trial regarding the petition to repeal the new Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). The five pastors who were subpoenaed were part of a coalition of some 400 Houston-area churches that opposed the ordinance. HERO, whose opponents have dubbed it the “bathroom bill,” would, among other things, allow all people dressed in women’s clothing, regardless of gender, to have access to women’s restrooms in all Houston businesses.

“They were looking into what instructions pastors gave out to those collecting signatures for a referendum on the non-discrimination law,” wrote Katie Zavadski in New York Magazine. “What exactly the pastors said, and what the collectors knew about the rules, is one of the key issues in pending litigation around whether opponents of the law gathered enough signatures for a referendum.”

Parker herself admitted last week that the wording of the subpoena was “overly broad.” But the goal, she said, “is to find out if there were specific instructions given on how the petitions should be accurately filled out. It’s not about, ‘What did you preach on last Sunday?’"

That’s not how Erik Stanley sees it. Alliance Defending Freedom’s Senior Legal Counsel said Friday, “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." 

Alliance Defending Freedom, a public interest law firm specializing in religious freedom, filed in the District Court of Harris County a motion to quash the subpoena. In an accompanying letter, ADF commented: “The message is clear: oppose the decisions of city government, and drown in unwarranted, burdensome discovery requests. These requests, if allowed, will have a chilling effect on future citizens who might consider circulating referendum petitions because they are dissatisfied with ordinances passed by the City Council.”

Pastor Castano believes Parker contradicted herself by a comment she had tweeted Oct. 17: "If the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game.  Were instructions given on filling out anti-HERO petition?”

"It is not true that they need the speeches from the pastors for the case on trial because the issue is the signatures and not the instructions," Castano said. "The city subpoenaed 14 different signature collectors beside the pastors. If they subpoena the signature collectors then why they need pastors who just preach on the issues of the Bible and their effects in today’s world?

“They wanted to send a message of fear and intimidate pastors against ever talking about things that are in the Bible,” Castano said. “There’s no doubt they’re trying to send a message that pastors and any normal citizen who opposes them will have to pay a price.”

Castano and his fellow ministers have some big guns on their side. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbot, who is running for governor, wrote the Houston city attorney, asking him  to withdraw the subpoenas. 

“Whether you intend it to be so or not, your action is a direct assault on the religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment,” Abbot wrote. "The people of Houston and their religious leaders must be absolutely secure in the knowledge that their religious affairs are beyond the reach of the government.”

The Family Research Council will be hosting speakers from various parts of the country for a rally at Grace Community Church in Houston, on Sunday, Nov. 2. Billed as “I Stand Sunday,” the rally will feature the FRC’s Tony Perkins, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson, TV’s Benham Brothers, and Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, among others.