Turn ‘em over. That’s the order from Houston’s mayor to the city’s conservative pastors. According to Fox News, Houston Mayor Annise Parker has subpoenaed sermons from pastors. She wants to see if those folks are bashing homosexuality. Though she has backtracked recently, Mayor Parker accuses conservatives of bigotry and anti-gay hate speech. Most important, legally, she accuses them of using their pulpits for political agitation. Not surprisingly, conservatives have reacted with furious indignation.
At issue here is a new anti-discrimination ordinance in Houston, the Houston Equal-Rights Ordinance (HERO). Back in August, conservatives submitted a petition challenging the new rule. Among other things, conservatives worried, the rule would have forced Houstonians to allow women in men’s bathrooms, and vice versa. The city threw out the petition, claiming a lack of legitimate signatures. In response, conservatives sued.
The city ordered conservative pastors to turn over their sermons as part of the lawsuit. According to World Magazine, Mayor Parker tweeted her reasons for ordering the subpoena: “If the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game. Were instructions given on filling out anti-HERO petition?”
Conservatives suspect more cynical motives. The activist group Alliance Defending Freedom jumped in to defend the pastors. The ADF accuses the mayor of quashing any political dissent. In a brief filed to fight the subpoenas, the ADF claimed,
The message is clear: oppose the decisions of city government, and drown in unwarranted, burdensome discovery requests. . . . These requests, if allowed, will have a chilling effect on future citizens who might consider circulating referendum petitions because they are dissatisfied with ordinances passed by the City Council.
Writing in Forbes Magazine, conservative intellectual David Davenport agreed. Davenport, former president of Pepperdine University, called Mayor Parker’s action “outrageous. . . . legal intimidation.”
Even the mayor herself might agree. According to World Magazine, the mayor’s office has backed off its initial subpoena claims. A city spokeswoman said the mayor now planned to “narrow the scope” of the subpoenas.
Writing from the sidelines, I can’t help but wonder if conservatives have this one right. I personally support rules such as HERO, and I think more and more Americans are with me on this one. To the chagrin of conservatives, religious opposition to equal rights for homosexuals is increasingly seen as bigotry and hatred. But that does not mean that Americans will stand by as religious speakers are hounded by aggressive and unconstitutional demands from a city government.
Whatever the legal merits of the case, headlines about subpoenaing sermons make the mayor look bad. It changes the culture-war discussion. Instead of framing Mayor Parker as the brave defender of equal rights for all, this kind of move makes her look like an anti-religion crusader. No matter how much Americans might be shifting towards acceptance of homosexuality, we still love our churches, and we love our freedom.