Houston officials moved Friday to squelch a national outcry over religious freedom by removing a demand for sermons from subpoenas filed against five local pastors, but critics said the city’s response doesn’t go far enough.
In a preliminary motion filed in district court, city attorney David Feldman asked to amend the original subpoenas by eliminating a reference to sermons, while Mayor Annise Parker said it was never the city’s intent to interfere with matters of faith.
“I support the right of the clergy to say whatever they want to say, even if I disagree with them,” Ms. Parker said in a Friday statement. “This is not about what they may be preaching from the pulpit. It is about proving that the petition gathering process organized by these pastors did not meet the requirements of the city charter.”
Even so, Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Erik Stanley said Friday that the revision “solves nothing,” arguing that the subpoenas still demand extensive information, including private communications with church members, unrelated to the lawsuit on the validity of petition signatures.
“As we have stated many times, the problem is the subpoenas themselves; they must be rescinded entirely,” Mr. Stanley said in a statement. “The city must respect the First Amendment and abandon its illegitimate mission to invade the private communications of pastors for the purpose of strong-arming them into silence in a lawsuit that concerns nothing more than the authenticity of citizen petitions.”
Members of a pastor-led coalition submitted petitions in August to place the city’s newly passed Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) before the voters, but Mr. Feldman ruled that the petitions fell short as a result of signature irregularities.
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The lawsuit, slated to go to trial in January, challenges Mr. Feldman’s ruling. In response, the city issued subpoenas to five local pastors, none of whom are a party to the lawsuit, asking for all communications related to the signature-gathering effort, as well as homosexuality, gender identity and restroom access.
The ordinance, also known as the “bathroom bill,” requires private businesses open to the public to allow opposite-sex use in their restrooms.
At a breakfast gathering Friday, Ms. Parker denied accusations that the subpoenas were intended to catch local pastors making inflammatory remarks, according to video posted online by Fox26 in Houston.
“The goal was not to determine whether they said tacky things about me or said I was going to hell or anything like that, despite what you might have heard on Fox News,” Ms. Parker said. “It was about whether they gave specific instructions around the petition process, because that’s the subject of the litigation.”
The motion asks the court to change Request No. 12 of the subpoenas, which now reads, “All speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuals, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.”
The revised request asks for “All speeches or presentations related to HERO or the Petition prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.”
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Elsewhere in the subpoenas, however, the pastors are ordered to produce all communications or documents related to the HERO petition and “the topics of equal rights, civil rights, homosexuality, or gender identity,” “Annise Parker or the Mayor’s office,” and “any discussion about whether or how HERO does or does not impact restroom access.”
Family Research Council president Tony Perkins called the city’s revised subpoena is “a difference without a distinction.”
“This head-fake might fool some, but the reality is, Mayor Parker didn’t need a subpoena to access those sermons in the first place. They were already public,” Mr. Perkins said in a statement. “In this ‘new’ filing, the Mayor still insists on seeing private emails, texts, and other communications related to the Mayor’s office and the city’s ‘bathroom bill.’”
He added that “if the Mayor was hoping to scare off these churches, she’ll have to try harder.”
“Every pastor I’ve spoken to would go to jail before surrendering their God-given rights to preach the truth free from government harassment and intimidation,” Mr. Perkins said.