Critics called Thursday on Houston Mayor Annise Parker to withdraw subpoenas for church sermons issued as part of a lawsuit over a transgender rights ordinance, while city officials attempted to downplay the outcry as overblown.
At a press conference at Houston’s First Baptist Church, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz joined a group of local pastors in decrying the city’s move to subpoena sermons and other communications related to a court battle over the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), also known as the “bathroom bill.”
“This week, the government of Houston, Texas, sent a subpoena to silence prayers. The government of Houston, Texas demanded of the pastors, ‘Hand over your sermons to the government,’” Mr. Cruz said. “Caesar has no jurisdiction over the pulpit, and when you subpoena one pastor, you subpoena every pastor.”
Family Research Council president Tony Perkins said in a statement that more than 25,000 people have signed an online petition in the last 24 hours asking Ms. Parker “to immediately retract these demands and issue a clear statement in support of the free speech of all people.”
In a Wednesday interview with KHOU-TV in Houston, however, city attorney David Feldman called the outcry over the subpoenas “ridiculous,” adding that, “It’s unfortunate that it has been construed as some sort of effort to infringe upon religious liberty.”
“All this hysteria about how we’re trying to infringe all because of the use of the word ‘sermons’ is really, really ridiculous,” Mr. Feldman said.
Ms. Parker told KHOU-TV she hadn’t read the subpoenas before they were issued. “One word in a very long legal document which I know nothing about and would never have read and I’m vilified from coast to coast — it’s a normal day at the office,” she said.
Ms. Parker’s office released a statement Wednesday in response to the uproar saying that the mayor “agrees with those who are concerned about the city legal department’s subpoenas for pastor’s sermons,” and that the city will “move to narrow the scope during an upcoming court hearing.”
But Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Christiana Holcomb said Thursday city officials have taken “no concrete action to withdraw the subpoenas” and described the city’s move as “simply more window-dressing intended to shield them from public scrutiny.”
“Furthermore, the subpoenas themselves are the problem — not just their request for pastors’ sermons,” Ms. Holcomb said in a statement. “The city is not off the hook from its illegitimate request for e-mails, text messages, and other communications in which these pastors, who are not even party to this lawsuit, may have disagreed with the mayor. The way to fix this is to withdraw the subpoenas entirely.”
The city issued subpoenas last week to five local pastors opposed to the ordinance, which requires businesses open to the public to permit opposite-sex bathroom use.
A pastor-led coalition had submitted a petition in August to place the ordinance before the voters, but Mr. Feldman ruled the petition inadequate because of irregularities with a number of signatures.
Members of the coalition, which had turned in three times the number of signatures required to put the ordinance on the ballot, filed a lawsuit in August challenging Mr. Feldman’s decision. A court date on the petitions is scheduled for Jan. 19.
The subpoenas included requests for sermons, emails, text messages, presentations and other communications related to the ordinance, the petition drive, homosexuality, the mayor, and “gender identity.”
The ordinance, passed 11-6 in May by the Houston city council, forbids private businesses open to the public from discriminating based on “gender identity,” which is now a “protected characteristic” under Houston law.
Janice Evans, spokeswoman for the mayor, said in an email, “As we noted yesterday, the action will come at an upcoming pretrial court hearing in the case.”
But ADF attorney Erik Stanley, who attended the Houston press conference, said the city doesn’t need to wait for a court date to address the subpoenas. So far no date has been set in the ADF’s lawsuit challenging the subpoenas, saying they are “overly broad, irrelevant, and cause undue burden or harassment.”
“There’s no court date but they don’t need a court date,” Mr. Stanley said. “They can take action now to withdraw or narrow the subpoenas, and that’s what they ought to do.”