HOUSTON — The dispute over Houston’s equal rights ordinance has extended to the pulpit.
Houston city attorneys recently subpoenaed sermons by several local pastors who oppose the measure and are tied to conservative Christian activists. The activists have sued Houston, claiming they had enough valid signatures to put a repeal referendum on the ballot. They say a city attorney wrongly determined they didn’t.
City attorneys issued the subpoenas as part of the case’s discovery phase, seeking all speeches, presentations or sermons related to the petition, mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality or gender identity.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization, filed a motion on behalf of the pastors seeking to end the subpoenas, the Houston Chronicle reported. In a news release, they called the subpoenas a “witch hunt.”
City attorney David Feldman said the city doesn’t intend to back down from its request and is working on a response to the motion. Feldman said pastors made their sermons relevant to the case by using the pulpit in encouraging church members to sign petitions and help gather signatures for the ordinance’s opponents.
In May, the City Council passed the equal rights ordinance, which bans discrimination of gay and transgender residents among businesses that serve the public, private employers, in housing and in city employment and city contracting. Religious institutions are exempt.
City Secretary Anna Russell initially counted enough signatures to put the repeal referendum on the ballot, but Feldman looked through all of the petition pages to see if the signatures met city charter requirements. He looked at whether the signature gatherers were Houston residents and whether they signed the petition. More than half of the 5,199 pages of the petition were disqualified.
South Texas College of Law professor Charles Rhodes said the city attorneys will face a high bar in proving the information in the sermons is essential to their case. The pastors aren’t plaintiffs in the suit, but Rhodes noted that many of the sermons are recorded and broadcast and intended to be shared with the public.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz weighed in on the subpoenas, issuing a news release that said summoning pastors to provide copies of their sermons is “both shocking and shameful” and a “grotesque abuse of power.”
“This is wrong,” he said in the statement. “It’s unbefitting of Texans, and it’s un-American. The government has no business asking pastors to turn over their sermons.”