It all started in September, when Houston Mayor Annise Parker and City Attorney David Feldman issued an "overly broad" subpoena for the sermons of select ministers who opposed the city's equal rights ordinance. Because of intense national opposition from even Texas' attorney general, this past Wednesday, Parker and Feldman appeared to recant or at least reduce their flagrant overreach and disregard of the ministers' legal protections under the First Amendment. By the weekend, however, the truth came out that they were only using political smoke and mirrors to try to simmer the patriotic fury; they were not changing course to constitutional compliance.
At first, Parker and Feldman tried to fly under the radar by issuing the subpoenas to the five pastors because they have association with Christian conservative activists who are rightly suing the city over its claim that they did not have a sufficient number of signatures to put a referendum on the ballot to repeal the equal rights ordinance. (They actually collected 50,000 signatures, though they needed only 17,259.)
So the city officials packaged their sermon subpoenas under a discovery phase in that case, despite warnings from other legal experts about constitutional obstacles. In short, Parker and Feldman mandated the turnover of "all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to (the equal rights ordinance), the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by" the pastors or in their possession.
Feldman explained that sermons with personal political views are not protected by the First Amendment and fair game for their assault. Feldman asserted, "If someone is speaking from the pulpit and it's political speech, then it's not going to be protected."
Parker echoed on Twitter: "If the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game."
When the pastors took action to sue the city, Feldman had the audacity to label their motives and any opposition as "ridiculous." He asserted, "It's unfortunate that it has been construed as some effort to infringe upon religious liberty."
Feldman expounded on that in frustration: "All this hysteria about how we're trying to infringe all because of the use of the word 'sermons' is really, really ridiculous."
But when national opposition grew louder than their false pretense for "discovery," Parker and Feldman cowered and blamed the subpoena's wording on "pro bono attorneys who were handling the case and (whose words were) not directly from the mayor's office."
Yet Parker continued to accuse: "There's no question the wording was overly broad, but I also think there was some deliberate misinterpretation on the other side."
"Deliberate misinterpretation"? And what about their deliberate misinterpretation of the pastors' First Amendment rights to religious liberty and free speech?
If Feldman and Parker need a primer on the First Amendment, then let them know that the Founding Fathers drafted it even to protect political speech by preachers!
I'm a Texan, and it chaps my hide when some kibosh of the U.S. Constitution originates in the Lone Star State. We, above all, should be leading the way in liberty. I respect all people and persuasions, but Parker and Feldman's move is nothing but a political maneuver to suppress dissenting voices and religious opinion.
I dislike vulgar, profane and hate language as much as anyone. But America has a protection for its expression. It's called the First Amendment, and I am tired of people trampling it by wrongly interpreting it as a right for only feel-good expression.
If that constitutional decree doesn't protect the worst of language, then what is freedom of speech all about? It wasn't a coincidence that our insightful founders saw that liberty and power — corrupted in the wrong hands — could be used to suppress the very liberties and power they were trying to secure and protect.
David Davenport — attorney, professor and fellow at the Hoover Institution — summarized his scholarly opinion about the Houston mayor-pastor debacle in his Forbes column this past week: "To say that these subpoenas are overly broad would be quite an understatement. ... But most outrageous of all is the obvious violation of the First Amendment. Churches and pastors are specifically protected in their speech and religious practice under the First Amendment. The only legitimate legal challenge would have to come from the IRS (which has its own conservative witch-hunt reputation to live down) or state taxing authorities. The latitude given to any Constitutionally-guaranteed rights such as those under the First Amendment is broad indeed, and it would take a lengthy and elaborate case to conclude the pastors overstepped their bounds. A court-issued subpoena over a repeal election is hardly the right legal setting for this."
He concluded with a stern pronouncement: "Unfortunately the Mayor of Houston thinks it's her role to work it out for everyone in her city, and to use unconstitutional intimidation if necessary to achieve those ends. In the name of the First Amendment, someone needs to stop her."
According to Fox News, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott tried to do just that when he wrote a personal letter of rebuke to Feldman. In it, he essentially assailed city officials for "bullying people of faith." Abbott called the subpoenas "aggressive and invasive" and said they show "no regard for the very serious First Amendment considerations at stake."
He added, "Whether you intend it to be so or not, your action is a direct assault on the religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment," calling for the subpoenas immediate rescinding.
But instead of heeding the state attorney general's rebuke, on Friday, the city upped the ante against freedom of speech and religious liberty. True, an amended motion was filed to no longer demand the turnover of sermons related to gays, gender identity or Parker, Houston's first openly lesbian mayor. However, the amended subpoenas still require pastors to relinquish "all speeches or presentations related to" the equal rights ordinance, among 17 other categories.
Has political ineptness reached an all-time low when government officials don't realize a sermon is a speech?!
Attorney Erik Stanley from the Alliance Defending Freedom, who is defending the pastors, was exactly correct: "The city of Houston still doesn't get it. The subpoenas still ask for information that encompasses speeches made by the pastors and private communications with their church members."
Such action reminds me of the words of Forrest Gump and his mother: "Stupid is as stupid does."
If you want to sound off on the Houston matter, here is the mayor's contact information: Mayor Annise D. Parker, City of Houston, P.O. Box 1562 Houston, TX 77251. Phone: 713-837-0311. Email: [email protected]
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