Thousands showed their support Sunday the five Houston pastors who drew national attention for challenging the city’s now-withdrawn effort to subpoena their sermons.
I Stand Sunday, a combination church service and religious-freedom rally, drew an estimated 6,000 congregants to hear a high-profile line-up of speakers at Grace Community Church in Houston. The two-hour event was simulcast to nearly 700 churches and 3,000 home groups.
While the pastors were the focus, speakers warned that the Houston subpoenas represent only the latest example of a growing threat to religious liberty in the United States.
“This was never really about subpoenas, it was not about sermons or speeches. This was about political intimidation,” said Family Research Council president Tony Perkins. “It was about trying to silence the voices of the churches and the pastors.”
Houston Mayor Annise Parker dropped the subpoenas last week after a national outcry, but the issue is far from resolved. Members of a pastor-led coalition filed a lawsuit in August against the city attorney’s decision to reject petitions for a voter referendum on the city’s newly passed gender-neutral “bathroom bill.”
“Mayor Parker, she’s so committed to her own agenda that she’s willing to trample on our right to vote, speak and practice our faith freely,” said Khanh Huynh, senior past of the Vietnamese Baptist Church. “My message to Mayor Parker, the city attorney and all those who have threatened our freedom is very simple: Let the people vote.”
Mr. Huynh, one of those served with a subpoena, said he was one of the “boat people” who fled Vietnam after communists took over his country in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
“The freedom of speech and freedom of religion were among the first to be lost in Vietnam, and now I’m facing the same marching boot of tyranny right here where I live,” Mr. Huynh told the crowd to cheers and applause.
Pastor Magda Hermida said the city’s subpoenas for sermons, emails and other communications related to the equal-rights ordinance reminded her of the conditions she fled in Cuba more than 50 years ago.
“We used to live in Cuba in a police state in which our possessions, our speech, our faith were monitored closely by the government with the fear of punishment if we said something or did something those in power didn’t like,” Ms. Hermida said. “We never thought we would see happening that is now in this country here in Houston, in our beloved America, but it is here and it is now.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said Christians need to become more involved in the political process. He said there are 80 million evangelicals in the United States, but only about half are registered to vote, and only about half of those vote in presidential elections.
“And we wonder why it is we’re seeing the kinds of things we’re seeing in cities like Houston, Texas,” Mr. Huckabee said. “I’ll tell you why. It’s because a lot of people in our churches have said, ‘I just don’t want to get involved.’ My dear friends, when the government comes to your pastor and says, ‘Cough up all of the sermons, sermon notes and correspondence that the pastor has had with his own parishioners,’ you are already involved.”
Other prominent speakers included Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention; Phil and Alan Robertson of A&E’s “Duck Dynasty,” and radio talk-show host Todd Starnes of Fox News & Commentary.
A group of supporters of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, known as HERO, gathered nearby Sunday for a counter-protest, holding signs that spelled out, “Stand for Love.”
“You cannot use your faith as a blank check to discriminate against others,” Tiffani Bishop of GetEqual Texas, which organized the demonstration, told the Houston Chronicle.
Although she withdrew the subpoenas, Ms. Parker has defended the ordinance, saying last week that, “I don’t want to have a national debate about freedom of religion when my whole purpose is to defend a strong and wonderful and appropriate city ordinance against local attack.”
Steve Riggle, pastor of Grace Community Church pastor, said the subpoenas have galvanized the religious community to push back against government intrusion into matters of faith. Several videos shown during the I Stand Sunday event featured business owners in trouble with the law for refusing to provide services for same-sex weddings.
“We’ve been in this battle regarding this ordinance for many months, but when the mayor decided to send subpoenas to all of us, it seemed like it was the match that was the ignition needed to raise a firestorm all over the nation,” Mr. Riggle said.
He also announced that foes of the ordinance will gather at 11 a.m. Wednesday at city hall for a post-election rally.
“I’d like to see all of you and everyone you can bring to city hall to deliver the mayor a message, a really vocal message, and it’s real simple: Mayor, let the people vote,” Mr. Riggle said.