- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in a letter Wednesday called Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s subpoena of church pastors “an abuse of government power” and urged the mayor to withdraw the court documents.

Commissioner Peter Kirsanow said that the subpoenas, even after being amended to remove a request for church sermons, still appear to be “a blatant attempt to punish these pastors for expressing their religiously based political views.”

“It punishes them by subjecting them to the stress of a subpoena (though they are not parties to the litigation), impairing their right to petition the government, forcing them to comply with a patently overbroad discovery request, and singling them out for opprobrium — thus chilling future religiously informed speech,” said Mr. Kirsanow, writing on behalf of himself and not the commission.

The subpoenas were issued after the city was sued in August for ruling that a pastor-led coalition had failed to gather enough signatures to place a referendum on an opposite-sex “bathroom” ordinance on the ballot. As a result, said Mr. Kirsanow, “the validity of the signatures is the only legitimate issue.”

The commissioner’s letter came as local and national religious leaders announced Wednesday an event in support of the five Houston pastors who were served with subpoenas, called I Stand Sunday.

The gathering, scheduled for Nov. 2 at Grace Community Church in Houston and available on webcast for other venues, is billed as a rally on behalf of the pastors and “the freedom to live out our faith free of government intrusion or monitoring.”

Featured speakers include former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Alan and Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, and several Houston pastors facing subpoenas, including Hernan Castano, Magda Hermida and Steve Riggle.

Mr. Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister who now hosts a popular show on Fox News, said at a teleconference that the Houston mayor’s effort to subpoena the pastors has alerted the public to the potential threat to freedom of religion by government officials pushing “gender-neutrality.”

“When pastors in Houston, Texas, are told, ‘Give me your papers, correspondence with church members, sermon notes, church bulletins,’ this is truly unsettling,” Mr. Huckabee said. “It could be what the mayor of Houston has done unwittingly is to do more to wake up people in the church pews than 100,000 pastors could have done by screaming at the top of their lungs that our culture is rapidly fading away from us.”

Mr. Perkins said Houston’s effort to subpoena church sermons is “not about speeches, it’s not about sermons, it’s not about teachings even on biblical morality as it pertains to homosexuality — this is about intimidation.”

“It’s about political intimidation, and it’s about a mayor there using her bully pulpit to try to silence the pulpits of Houston,” Mr. Perkins said. “I’m proud to say that these pastors are not being intimidated, they’re not shrinking back, and they’re not going to go silent.”

City officials removed from the subpoenas the section requesting sermons after a political firestorm that quickly gained national attention. At first Ms. Parker called the sermons “fair game,” but several days later she agreed to amend the subpoenas by removing the reference to sermons.

But the subpoenas still order the pastors to produce emails, texts and other communications with church members and others that pertain to not only the signature-gathering effort but such topics as the mayor, homosexuality and gender identity. Attorneys for the pastors have challenged the subpoenas in court.

Houston City Attorney David Feldman disallowed about 35,000 of the 50,000 signatures submitted by a pastor-led coalition challenging the so-called “bathroom bill,” citing irregularities. The petitions, which were initially ruled sufficient by the city secretary, needed 17,269 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Passed 11-6 in May by the city council, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance requires private businesses open to the public to allow opposite-sex bathroom use in order to avoid discriminating on the basis of gender identity, which is now a “protected characteristic” in Houston.

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