Five Christian pastors will no longer have to turn their sermons over to attorneys for the city of Houston. Instead, they will be forced to turn over their speeches related to the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO).
I don’t mean to point out the obvious here – but what do those attorneys think a sermon is? It’s a speech.
According to an amended motion filed Friday in Harris County, Texas court, the city’s attorneys will no longer demand sermons related to homosexuals, gender identity, or Mayor Annise Parker – Houston's first openly lesbian mayor.
The amended subpoenas do require the pastors to turn over “all speeches or presentations related to HERO” – along with 17 different categories of information.
The Alliance Defending Freedom is a religious liberty law firm that is representing the pastors. Attorney Erik Stanley tells me the amended subpoenas don’t solve anything.
“The city of Houston still doesn’t get it,” he said. “The subpoenas still ask for information that encompasses speeches made by the pastors and private communications with their church members.”
Stanley said the only resolution is for the city to rescind the subpoenas entirely.
“This tramples their First Amendment rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion,” Stanley said. “Any inquiry into what these pastors did in standing against the ordinance passed by the city of Houston and encouraging members to sign the petition is a violation of the First Amendment.”
The subpoenas were issued in a response to a lawsuit filed related to HERO, also known as the “Bathroom Bill.” Religious groups were opposed to a provision of the law that would allow men who identify as women to use the restrooms of their choice.
The city’s attorney said the pastors were subpoenaed because they were helping to lead opposition to the Bathroom Bill.
According to the Houston Chronicle, Mayor Parker said on Friday, "We don't need to intrude on matters of faith to have equal rights in Houston, and it was never the intention of the city of Houston to intrude on any matters of faith or to get between a pastor and their parishioners."
Folks, that's a load of grade A fertilizer.
"We don't want their sermons, we want the instructions on the petition process. That's always what we wanted and, again, they knew that's what we wanted because that's the subject of the lawsuit," she said.
There's just one problem, Madam Mayor, the pastors aren't party to the lawsuit. And if you weren't looking for their sermons, why did you put that in the subpoena.
The amended subpoenas are not likely to quell growing national outrage over what many are calling an all-out assault on religious liberty.
Sen. Ted Cruz forcefully denounced the city’s actions during a Thursday rally in support of the pastors in Houston.
“Caesar has no jurisdiction over the pulpit,” Cruz said to a cheering crowd of pastors and supporters. “When you subpoena one pastor, you subpoena every pastor.”
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued a blistering letter to the city attorney Wednesday night – demanding they immediately rescind the subpoenas.
He called the subpoenas “aggressive and invasive” and said they show “no regard for the very serious First Amendment considerations at stake.”
“Whether you intend it to be so or not, your action is a direct assault on the religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment,” Abbott wrote.
Also on Wednesday, Mayor Parker issued a defiant statement on Twitter – justifying the city’s attack on the ministers.
“If the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game,” Parker tweeted.
Stanley said the mayor’s tweet revealed the city’s true intent.
“I think the mayor’s comment unmasks what the city is really after,” he said. “The city views these pastors and the communications they make with their members, their sermons, and their speeches as fair game.”
He said it was nothing more than a “strong-arm intimidation tactic to silence these pastors.”
“They are sending a message that you better not go up against City Hall on these issues,” Stanley added.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins had a strong reaction to the city of Houston's latest move. He told me Friday, "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," he said.
"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.’ While two words – ‘or sermons’ – are dropped from the ‘revised’ subpoena, the government intrusion into private religious affairs remains. The ‘revised’ subpoena is a difference without a distinction."
Alliance Defending Freedom said they will move forward with a request to quash the subpoenas. Regardless of the outcome, the pastors will not turn over any documents to the city.
As Senator Cruz so eloquently said, Caesar has no jurisdiction over the pulpit.
Todd Starnes is host of Fox News & Commentary, heard on hundreds of radio stations. His latest book is "God Less America: Real Stories From the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values." Follow Todd on Twitter@ToddStarnes and find him on Facebook.