The city of Houston subpoenaing sermons and private conversations of pastors is something much different than the usual outrage topic of the day.
Much of the stories that bubble up on social media and through partisan media are often nothing more than yet another product of the outrage factory.
Most often, the proposed solution is little more than elect this candidate or vote out this other candidate, thus betraying the issue as purely political and the person as more concerned with surface political changes than with deep spiritual transformation.
But what is happening in Houston is much more than that. City officials have subpoenaed the sermons and other personal communications of local pastors whom they believe to be in opposition to their city’s equal rights ordinance.
The subpoenas are part of a lawsuit over an effort to repeal the bill. The city secretary originally approved enough signatures on a petition to force a repeal referendum on next month’s ballot. But the city attorney came in later and disqualified more, leaving opponents short of the required number.
Petition supporters then began a lawsuit to force the mayor’s office to accept the original approval by the city secretary. It is in this lawsuit that city attorney’s decided to subpoena numerous forms of communication from five area pastors including “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.”
What this is not
The temptation is to make this incident much bigger than it is. The scarier it sounds the more likely people are to get involved, as the argument goes. But I think we should deal with truth and not scare tactics here.
A subpoena of sermons is not automatically unconstitutional and a violation of the First Amendment. As law professor Eugene Volokh points out, there are instances where it would be entirely appropriate for the contents of sermons or communications of pastors to be included in a lawsuit.
This also does not prevent pastors in Houston or anywhere else from speaking about the gospel or any other biblical topic from their pulpit. Neither is the mayor demanding all sermons of every city pastor because she feels like punishing her political opponents. These things tend to happen when lawsuits are involved.
Plus, pushback from the government over a biblical stance should not come as a shock. Christians have long been challenged to speak out in opposition to government leaders who attempted to use the force of law to intimidate them. As Jared Wilson so succinctly tweeted:
John the Baptist was imprisoned for — essentially — criticizing the king’s sex life. Ain’t nothing new.
— jaredcwilson (@jaredcwilson) October 15, 2014
What this is
However, as I noted at the beginning of this piece, I believe this case is something different. It clearly is not on the level of persecution Christians are seeing globally, but just because it isn’t everything, doesn’t mean it isn’t something. There are real stakes involved in this case. At least two factors make this different.
Chilling effect on speech
While pastors should boldly proclaim the message of the gospel regardless of the costs, we know from church history and human nature that will not always be the case. Many shrink back in the face of pressure. But even if they don’t, a bully rebuffed is nonetheless a bully.
Mayor Parker is without a doubt attempting to use the power of her office to pressure her opponents into silence. No, she did not initiate the lawsuit, but the actions of the city necessitated it originally and continue to further demonstrate just how needed it is.
In demanding all of the communications they did, the city demonstrated that their main concern was not gathering information relevant to the case. It was attempting to bully those the mayor saw as her political opponents.
While Parker and others in the mayor’s office have tried, in some instances, to distance themselves from the subpoenas by throwing “pro bono attorneys” under the proverbial bus, the city attorney said the sermons were relevant to the case and should be subpoenaed because they used the pulpit to “do political organizing.”
Furthermore, Parker tweeted herself that the sermons of pastors who use their pulpits to speak on political issues were “fair game.” Except that is entirely false. Pastors have always been able to speak from the pulpit in a sermon about political issues. Not to mention, Parker herself seems to have no problem with churches that supported her measure and have even brought her in to speak.
The bigger problem with Mayor Parker’s abuse of power is not so much this specific case as it is the precedent it sets for other instances and how it emboldens government officials to push even further. If this is allowed to stand, consider what other mayors and governments will attempt.
What if the next mayor of Houston disagrees with Parker’s bill, works to overturn it against the wishes of churches supportive of the measures and then engages in similar measures against those pastors? What if a pro-choice organization sues over an abortion bill, then a pro-life governor uses that opportunity to demand pastors who support abortion turn over their communications?
While this case is not about government approval of sermons, you can see how quickly it could move there if this power grab is allowed to stand. Using discrimination accusations as the foundation, mayors could demand to see sermons prior to their delivery to ensure they do not violate ordinances similar to the one in Houston.
If power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, then unabated power grows unabatedly. If Mayor Parker and the city of Houston’s demands are allowed to stand, they will undoubtedly use that as a rung on the ladder to reach for more control (like maybe prevent charities, many of whom are religious, from feeding the homeless without permission from the government).
There is a reason that groups and individuals (Houston pastor Chris Seay, former advisor to President Obama, Michael Wear, liberal religious groups like Religion Dispatches and InterFaith Alliance, libertarian magazine Reason, conservative groups like ERLC and Alliance Defending Freedom) so often on opposing sides agree that Mayor Parker has reached too far. They recognize the danger in allowing this to stand.
If this is left unchallenged, Houston will not be the only one with the problem. It will be our entire country.