Houston Mayor Annise Parker announced Wednesday that she will withdraw subpoenas aimed at five local pastors after a national firestorm during which she was accused of anti-religious intimidation and abuse of power.
Ms. Parker said at a press conference that removing the subpoenas lets the city avoid a squabble over freedom of religion in the legal battle over its recently enacted gender-neutral bathroom bill.
“I didn’t do this to satisfy them,” Ms. Parker said of her critics in the Houston Chronicle. “I did it because it was not serving Houston.”
Alliance Defending Freedom senior legal counsel Erik Stanley, who challenged the subpoenas on behalf of the pastors, said in a statement that Ms. Parker “had no choice but to withdraw these subpoenas, which should never have been served in the first place.”
“The entire nation — voices from every point of the spectrum left to right — recognize the city’s action as a gross abuse of power,” Mr. Stanley said. “We are gratified that the First Amendment rights of the pastors have triumphed over government overreach and intimidation. The First Amendment protects the right of pastors to be free from government intimidation and coercion of this sort.”
City officials originally issued subpoenas calling for pastors to turn over sermons related to the gender-neutral bathroom law, known as the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, but removed sermons from the subpoenas after a public outcry.
Ms. Parker, who is openly gay, said she made the decision to pull the subpoenas outright after meeting Tuesday with members of the local and national clergy.
“The goal of the subpoenas is to defend against a lawsuit, and not to provoke a public debate,” Ms. Parker said in the Chronicle. “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, and by taking this step today we remove that discussion about freedom of religion.”
City officials were sued in August after ruling that a petition drive to place the ordinance on the ballot was insufficient, citing irregularities with many of the signatures. The lawsuit contends that the petitions, which contained more than three times the number required to qualify for the ballot, were sufficient.
The city responded by issuing subpoenas to five local pastors, none of whom was a party to the lawsuit, calling for all communications related to a host of topics, including the mayor, the ordinance, homosexuality and gender neutrality.
Mr. Stanley said the equal rights ordinance should be put before voters.
“The subpoena threat has been withdrawn, but the mayor and the city should now do the right thing and allow the people of the Houston to decide whether to repeal the ordinance,” Mr. Stanley said.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is helping to host an event Sunday on behalf of the pastors called I Stand Sunday at Grace Community Church in Houston, which is also available for simulcast.
“While we are encouraged by this evidence that the Mayor is responding to pressure and withdrawing her unconstitutional subpoenas, this is about far more than subpoenas,” said a statement by Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. “As we have stated since the beginning of this intrusion into the private affairs of Houston churches; this is not about subpoenas, this is not about sermons, it is not even about biblical teaching on sexual immorality, it is about political intimidation and the bullying by Mayor Parker that continues.”