HOUSTON – Houston city attorneys have withdrawn subpoenas that sought speeches and other information from five pastors who publicly opposed an ordinance banning discrimination of gay and transgender residents, the mayor said Wednesday.
Mayor Annise Parker said the subpoenas, which the city pursued after opponents filed a lawsuit seeking a vote on repealing the ordinance, inadvertently created a national debate about freedom of religion. The pastors, who aren't plaintiffs but support repeal efforts, argued that their sermons, presentations and other material were protected under the First Amendment.
"I always supported the right of clergy to say what they want even if I disagree with them," Parker said. "It was never our intention to interfere with any members of the clergy and their congregants in terms of sermons, in terms of preaching what they believe is the word of the God that they serve. ... My whole purpose is to defend a strong and wonderful and appropriate city ordinance against local attack."
The Houston City Council passed an ordinance in May that consolidates city bans on discrimination based on sex, race, age, religion and other categories. It also increases protections for gay and transgender residents. Opponents are pushing to repeal the ordinance, saying the issue should be decided by voters.
The mayor, who is openly gay, and other supporters said the measure was about offering protections at the local level against discrimination in housing, employment and services provided by private businesses such as hotels and restaurants. Religious institutions are exempt from the ordinance.
Parker said that after meeting Tuesday with local and national religious leaders, and listening to their concerns about religious freedom, she decided it was best for the city to drop the subpoenas.
The subpoenas had originally requested all speeches, presentations or sermons from five pastors. The city withdrew its request for the sermons on Oct. 17.
One of the pastors, Steve Riggle, said he didn't believe Parker was genuinely concerned about the religious freedom issues surrounding the subpoenas.
"If the mayor thought the subpoenas were wrong, she would have pulled them immediately, not waited until she was forced to by national outrage to narrow them, which according to our legal team didn't narrow them at all," said Riggle, a pastor at Grace Community Church.
Andy Taylor, an attorney for local residents who filed the lawsuit, said the mayor took a step in the right direction but that the three-term mayor should allow voters to decide the ordinance's fate.
Opponents had collected signatures, hoping to put a repeal referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot. But the city attorney disqualified more than half of the 5,199 pages of the repeal petition, saying there were errors in how the pages were notarized.
A trial on the lawsuit is set for Jan. 19.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juanlozano70