Hous­ton mayor backs off church ser­mon sub­poe­nas

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY VA­LERIE RICHARD­SON

After call­ing church ser­mons “fair game” for sub­poena, Hous­ton Mayor An­nise Parker backed down Wed­nes­day from the city’s ef­fort to force lo­cal pas­tors to turn over speeches and pa­pers re­lated to a hotly con­tested trans­gen­der rights or­di­nance.

The city had asked five pas­tors for “all speeches, pre­sen­ta­tions, or ser­mons” on a va­ri­ety of top­ics, in­clud­ing the mayor, and “gen­der iden­tity.”

The sub­poena prompted a storm of crit­i­cism when it be­came pub­lic Tues­day. The pas­tors are in­volved in le­gal ef­forts to over­turn the Hous­ton Equal Rights Or­di­nance, also known as the “bath­room bill.”

The pas­tors and their al­lies called the city’s broad de­mand a threat to re­li­gious free­dom and proof that gay and trans­gen­der rights bills can be used as weapons to de­mo­nize Chris­tian­ity.

“The gov­ern­ment has no business ask­ing pas­tors to turn over their ser­mons,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Repub­li­can.

Ms. Parker’s of­fice ini­tially dou­bled down in the face of such crit­i­cism but is­sued a state­ment late Wed­nes­day say­ing the mayor “agrees with those who are con­cerned about the city le­gal depart­ment’s sub­poe­nas for pas­tors’ ser­mons.”

The state­ment says the city will “move to nar­row the scope dur­ing an up­com­ing court hear­ing” and that city at­tor­ney David Feld­man “says the fo­cus should be only on com­mu­ni­ca­tions re­lated to the pe­ti­tions to over­turn the or­di­nance.”

Joe La Rue, le­gal coun­sel for the Al­liance De­fend­ing Free­dom, which has moved to quash the sub­poe­nas, called the mayor’s turn­around “wholly in­ad­e­quate.”

He noted that the city still ap­pears to want some ser­mons and other doc­u­ments re­lated to the law­suit over the pe­ti­tion drive, which the city re­jected after say­ing too many of the sig­na­tures were in­valid.

“Th­ese ser­mons, emails and texts have noth­ing to do with whether the coali­tion gath­ered enough sig­na­tures to qual­ify for the bal­lot,” Mr. La Rue said.

The city’s state­ment added that the sub­poe­nas were is­sued by “pro bono at­tor­neys help­ing the city pre­pare for the trial re­gard­ing the pe­ti­tion to re­peal the new Hous­ton Equal Rights Or­di­nance” and “Nei­ther the mayor nor City At­tor­ney David Feld­man were aware the sub­poe­nas had been is­sued un­til [Tues­day].”

How­ever, Ms. Parker, a self-de­clared les­bian, de­fended the sub­poe­nas after she was aware of them, ac­cord­ing to her Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon state­ment.

In a post on her Twit­ter feed late Tues­day, around mid­night, Ms. Parker said that is­su­ing sub­poe­nas for ser­mons was ap­pro­pri­ate if the pas­tors had been ac­tive in pro­mot­ing the sig­na­ture-gath­er­ing ef­fort to over­turn the or­di­nance.

“If the 5 pas­tors used pul­pits for pol­i­tics, their ser­mons are fair game,” Ms. Parker said on Twit­ter. “Were in­struc­tions given on filling out anti-HERO pe­ti­tion?”

Her tweets also chided what she called bi­ased re­port­ing and lamented “how lit­tle fact check­ing is done.”

Ac­cord­ing to a press con­fer­ence Ms. Parker gave Wed­nes­day, “the goal” of the sub­poena” was “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?’”

The sub­poena con­tro­versy has erupted amid a bat­tle over the or­di­nance, passed by the City Coun­cil in May, which al­lows peo­ple to use pub­lic bath­rooms des­ig­nated for use by the op­po­site sex. The mea­sure is aimed at pro­hibit­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion based on “gen­der iden­tity,” which is now a “pro­tected char­ac­ter­is­tic” un­der Hous­ton law.

A pas­tor-led coali­tion op­posed to the or­di­nance sub­mit­ted about 50,000 sig­na­tures, three times the num­ber re­quired, to force a voter ref­er­en­dum on the is­sue. Even so, Mr. Feld­man ruled the pe­ti­tions in­suf­fi­cient as a re­sult of “ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties,” which prompted four peo­ple to file a law­suit chal­leng­ing his decision.

Mr. Feld­man also de­fended the city’s ef­fort to seize ser­mons at first in an in­ter­view Tues­day with KTRK-TV, the ABC af­fil­i­ate in Hous­ton.

“If they choose to do this inside the church, choose to do this from the pul­pit, then they open the door to the ques­tions be­ing asked,” Mr. Feld­man said.

City of­fi­cials came un­der fierce crit­i­cism ear­lier Wed­nes­day for the ser­mon sub­poe­nas. Mr. Cruz also called the decision a “grotesque abuse of power.”

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