Houston subpoenas raise religious liberty concerns

by Kathryn Freeman on October 23, 2014 in CLC

The City of Houston gained national attention last week as a result of subpoenas sent to five local pastors seeking "all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by or approved by you or in your possession."

CLC Director Gus Reyes spoke out against these subpoenas because they appeared to be designed to intimidate pastors and make them think twice about speaking on this critical social issue. Texas Baptists President Jeff Johnson, Executive Director David Hardage and Reyes also joined other Baptist leaders from around the country in expressing concern in a letter to the mayor.

The sermon subpoenas where one of a number of documents the city sought as part of the an ongoing lawsuit around the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). The ordinance passed by the City Council in May prohibits discrimination on sexual orientation, gender identity, sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, as well as family, marital or military status.

The ordinance applies to businesses that serve the public, private employers, housing, city employment and city contractors. Religious institutions would be exempt. Violators could be fined up to $5,000.

After the city passed the ordinance, several opponents of the measure, including some Houston area churches, worked together to gather signatures for a petition to force a voter referendum seeking repeal of the ordinance, but city officials ruled thousands of signatures ineligible and did not place the item on the ballot, which triggered the lawsuit by ordinance opponents. None of the five subpoenaed pastors are party to the lawsuit.

The subpoenaing of sermons in this case is troubling because they are overly broad, but more importantly they are an unwarranted intrusion into church affairs by city officials. Pastors have the right and responsibility to speak about the important societal and cultural issues of the day and the issue of homosexual identity and same sex marriage is one of the most important issues facing the church and our communities today. Pastors should feel free to speak about these issues without fear of government attempts to police church doctrine.

The subpoenas created a firestorm and increased concerns both in Houston and across the nation of pastors related to religious liberty and respect for people of faith that may have different views.

These subpoenas were ill-advised and overly broad. At a time of turmoil in our nation, when what is needed is more cooperation between people of faith and local officials to solve the tough challenges facing our communities, our churches and our nation. These subpoenas were a shot across the bow, one that has led pastors to believe if they speak on same-sex behavior, even if coming from a place of sincere religious beliefs, they will be ostracized and attacked for failing to conform to societal norms.

This brings us to the core of our belief in religious liberty. Pastors are responsible to God and God alone. The government should not seek to become the conscience of man.

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