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HOUSTON – U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz told congregants of his home church Thursday that the city of Houston abused power by subpoenaing sermons and other documents from pastors who publicly opposed a local ordinance banning discrimination against gay and transgender residents.
Cruz, standing among more than a dozen clergy at First Baptist Church in Houston, described the subpoenas as an "abuse of government power" and another illustration of the "indefensible assault by the government on religious liberties."
"Caesar has no jurisdiction over the pulpit," said the Texas Republican, a tea party-backed conservative who is considering a presidential run.
In May, the City Council passed the equal rights ordinance, which bans discrimination of gay and transgender residents among businesses that serve the public, private employers, in housing and in city employment and city contracting. Religious institutions are exempt, but city attorneys subpoenaed five pastors, seeking all speeches, presentations or sermons related to the petition, the mayor, homosexuality or gender identity.
Christian activists sued after city officials ruled they didn't collect enough signatures on petitions to put a referendum on the ballot to repeal the ordinance backed by Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who is gay.
Parker and the city attorney, David Feldman, said the subpoenas were designed to gather evidence in the lawsuit, may have been poorly written by an outside firm working for the city and that she and Feldman were not aware of them and had not read them before they recently were served.
The subpoenas, however, have not been withdrawn, and Feldman said the city would revise the wording and narrow the scope when it responds to a motion to quash them.
The controversy has touched a nerve among religious conservatives around the country, already anxious about the rapid spread of gay rights and what it might mean for faith groups who object. Religious groups have been mobilizing their pastors to protest the Houston subpoenas. The Family Research Council, the conservative political advocacy group, issued an action alert to its network, and the NRB, the national trade association for Christian broadcasters, called the request for sermons an "inquisition.
However, even religious leaders who support civil rights protections for gays have protested the subpoenas as a violation of religious freedom. The Rev. Welton Gaddy, head of the liberal Interfaith Alliance, who supports ordinances like the one in Houston, sent a letter to Parker and Feldman calling the request for sermons "profoundly disturbing" and an action that "fails to capture the intent of the United States Constitution."
City Secretary Anna Russell initially counted enough signatures to put the repeal referendum on the ballot, but Feldman examined the petition pages to see if the signatures met city charter requirements, focusing on whether the signature gatherers were Houston residents and whether they signed the petition. More than half of the 5,199 pages of the petition were disqualified.
Jared Woodfill, who is leading the repeal effort, said he believes the city's use of subpoenas against pastors for sermons and notes is unprecedented. He accused Parker of pursuing a personal agenda and using taxpayer dollars and the power of the government to harass the churches."
"Let me just say that one word in a very long legal document which I know nothing about and would never have read and I'm vilified coast to coast," Parker said. "It's a normal day at the office for me."
AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll contributed to this report.