Increasingly, I find myself telling people, “If you don’t believe religious liberty is under attack, try exercising it sometime. You’ll see what happens.”
We have written repeatedly about the so-called “nondiscrimination” ordinance passed in Fayetteville a few weeks ago and its unintended consequences. The ordinance creates special legal provisions for certain people based on sexual orientation and gender-identity at the expense of religious freedom and sound public policy. Fayetteville voters will have an opportunity to decide whether or not to repeal the ordinance at a special election on December 9 thanks to a petition drive carried out by local residents and church leaders.
However, nothing in Fayetteville compares to what Houston ministers are facing right now as a result of their city’s efforts to pass new “nondiscrimination” legislation. In a bizarre series of twists and turns, Houston city officials have ordered several local pastors to turn over sermons and other pastoral communications. Any pastor who fails to comply could face “fine or confinement, or both.”
In other words, the city is telling ministers they could be fined and imprisoned if they fail to turn over their sermons.
How did this happen? Isn’t this America? Doesn’t the First Amendment recognize and protect the freedom of speech and the exercise of religion?
According to different news sources, the Houston City Council, in the face of much opposition, passed a “nondiscrimination” ordinance last summer that, among other things, permits men to use the women’s restrooms and vice versa. To bring the ordinance up for citywide vote, local citizens began collecting petition signatures. They needed about 17,000 signatures; they collected more than 50,000. However, the city disqualified the petitions due to alleged inconsistencies.
Local citizens then filed a lawsuit against the city’s attorneys, and the city responded by subpoenaing sermons from local pastors. But Todd Starnes writes at Fox News,
“The pastors were not part of the lawsuit. However, they were part of a coalition of some 400 Houston-area churches that opposed the ordinance. The churches represent a number of faith groups – from Southern Baptist to non-denominational.” (emphasis added)
If it’s true these pastors are not plaintiffs in the lawsuit, that’s significant. Government officials cannot order a person to hand over property without cause–whether that’s a physical item or something intangible, like a recording of a sermon. Just like the police cannot come into your home without a warrant or probable cause, a city cannot order pastors to turn over their sermons unless they are part of a lawsuit or are under investigation for wrongdoing.
In this case the city is probably searching for examples of sermons preached concerning homosexuality, gender-identity, or the city ordinance. According to KTRK news, the subpoena requests, “all speeches, presentations, or sermons [related to the ordinance and] all communications with members of [each pastor’s] congregation” regarding it.
Starnes, again, writes,
“Mayor Parker will not explain why she wants to inspect the sermons. …
“[Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Erik] Stanley suspects the mayor wants to publicly shame the ministers. He said he anticipates they will hold up their sermons for public scrutiny. In other words – the city is rummaging for evidence to ‘out’ the pastors as anti-gay bigots.”
However, under the U.S. Constitution pastors are free to discuss current events from the pulpit. They are even free to criticize elected officials and public policy. There are tax regulations prohibiting churches from endorsing or opposing candidates during an election, but many people believe even those regulations are unconstitutional–after all, almost any other group or organization is free to endorse or oppose candidates, so why should churches be treated any differently?
When it’s all said and done, this seems to be an attempt to bully pastors into keeping silent or giving up on the fight over the city ordinance. If preachers know their sermons could be published in court as “Exhibit A,” they might watch what they say about homosexuality and contentious public policies like those in Houston, Fayetteville, and elsewhere around the country.
Of course, it’s also worth pointing out there was a time when government officials in Europe tried to silence Christian preachers by feeding them to lions. With that in mind, it should not be surprising that many of the preachers named in the Houston subpoena have already said they will not comply or be intimidated.
Just the same, it’s disturbing this type of government intimidation would occur at all, let alone in America’s fourth largest city.