In May, the [Houston] City Council passed the Equal Rights ordinance, which consolidates city bans on discrimination based on sex, race, age, religion and other categories and increases protections for gay and transgender residents. [Mayor Annise] Parker, who is gay, and other supporters said the measure is about offering protections at the local level against all forms of discrimination in housing, employment and services provided by private businesses such as hotels and restaurants.
Religious institutions are exempt, but city attorneys recently subpoenaed the pastors, seeking all speeches, presentations or sermons related to the repeal petition…
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 that object. Religious groups, including some that support civil rights protections for gays, have protested the subpoenas as a violation of religious freedom.
Christian pastors have been offending powerful authorities since Jesus angered the establishment of his day. If my sermons are subpoenaed, I would be tempted to print all of them and hand deliver them all, tied up in a ribbon, with the hope that the mayor might read them. We Christians are called by God to make our testimony before kings, and we should not be ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ. A pastor should be delighted when he is given an opportunity to deliver publicly the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is what those who belong to the kingdom of Christ hope and pray for.
It may be a slight variation on President Obama’s line of a few months ago, but it applies here: “Go ahead, subpoena me!” Put my sermons before a court of law, please! The rage and spite of those who hate the Christian worldview might well benefit the church and her Lord.
But that’s not the whole story.
Pastors are also citizens of the kingdom of Caesar. In the bare-knuckled realm of American politics, the mayor and City Council are not really interested in reading a bunch of Christian sermons to find out what they say. They are attempting to stop Christian pastors from commenting on moral issues that are important to politicians. They are using the coercive power of the city’s legal department and turning it on the speech of the church. Not only is this an effort to shame the pastors for their principled stand on sexual mores, but it is a naked attempt to silence them.
When the Mayor of Houston, sent her legal attack dogs to demand the sermons of ministers who opposed an ordinance that might prevent churches from hiring people who adhered to a traditional faith, my first thought was of Martin Luther and my hope was that someone would, in elaborate calligraphy, stencil the First Amendment upon parchment and nail it to the doors of city hall…
Nothing chills dissent, speech, or the free exercise of religion like the heavy hand of government, which is why the Mayor of Houston attacking the pulpit is so extreme, and needs to be spoken out against, now, loudly.
When sermons are censored or demanded to be produced, then we are in danger. I don’t care if the sermons castigate the immorality of instant replay, freedom absolutely requires dissent. Anything short of full dissent is not freedom and should be fought with vigor, no matter your opinion on the subject at hand.
The First Amendment cannot be allowed to wither and die on the altar of political correctness.
The truly stupid nature of the subpoenas had something to do with it, but conservatives have been girding for a good religious liberty battle. Since 2008, a growing number of churches have celebrated “pulpit freedom days” in the weeks before elections. It’s been a sort of I-am-Spartacus project, a massive dare to the IRS – come on, sue a church for allowing a political sermon on Sunday.
The effort was chugging along, but the 2013 IRS scandal really fueled it. In May 2013, the conservative Thomas More Society made public a letter to the Coalition for Life of Iowa that had been sent years earlier. The IRS wanted to know how the coalition could justify tax exemption. So it asked this: “Please explain how all of your activities, including the prayer meetings held outside of Planned Parenthood, are considered educational as defined under 501(c)(3).”
Cruz, whose father is a pastor, made this letter infamous. He’ll mention it in nearly every speech to social conservatives: Obama’s IRS was asking Americans to “tell us the content of your prayers.”
What happens next? Lots more brawling.
I posit, based on such history and the scant legislative history of 501(c)(3), that religious organizations were included as common-sense prevention to challenge of the tax code—“obviously religion is exempt, you anti-New Dealers, so don’t bother with a Constitutional challenge to taxation on First Amendment violations”—and to bolster secular charities claim to the exemption. But in the intervening decades we’ve forgotten that religious institutions’ exemption from taxes is not a matter of legislative grace. We’ve come to think of it as exempt only if it complies, as secular charities must do. Among religious institutions, churches, in particular, have unwittingly encouraged this view by “rendering unto Caesar,” which was basically the reasoning of Lee’s piece. Essentially, churches have complied with the exemption requirements of the tax code rather than asserting the right to be free from taxation…
We need to remember that religion is not exempt from taxation because Congress granted it an exception. Religion is one of the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the first item of the Bill of Rights. It is not subject to taxation. As Chief Justice Marshall wrote of Maryland’s argument that it had a right to tax a U.S. bank: “The right never existed, and the question whether it has been surrendered cannot arise.”
Right leaning citizens weren’t the only ones to shirk away from Parker’s drastic and seemingly vindictive actions. The ACLU and other liberal leaning organizations expressed grave concern with Parker’s unprecedented overreach.
The ACLU said in a statement, ““While a lot of things are fair game in a lawsuit, government must use special care when intruding into matters of faith. The government should never engage in fishing expeditions into the inner workings of a church, and any request for information must be carefully tailored to seek only what is relevant to the dispute.”
Following blowback, Parker announced the City of Houston would clarify the subpoenas which were, “too broad.” “We are glad that Mayor Parker has acknowledged that subpoenas issued in ongoing litigation were too broad and that there is no need to intrude on matters of faith to have equal rights in Houston. There was no need to include sermons in the subpoena in the first place,” said the Texas Chapter of the ACLU.
I’m not particularly interested in defending the Houston lawyers’ actions, because, frankly, they were incredibly stupid, instantly regrettable, and utterly unnecessary. Yes, Houston’s anti-LGBT coalition started this mess by trying to repeal the ordinance, allegedly failing to get enough valid signatures, then suing to push their repeal effort on the ballot anyway. Yes, Houston’s lawyers have significant evidence that some pastors may have taught their congregants an invalid method of collecting signatures.
The fact remains, however, that the subpoenas are vastly, almost comically overbroad. Every sermon related to homosexuality or gender identity? What a shockingly idiotic way to gather information. If Houston’s lawyers felt it was absolutely necessary to subpoena the pastors, they could have simply demanded any sermon that pertained to the repeal effort itself. By asking for every single sermon pertaining to LGBTQ issues, Houston’s attorneys have painted a target on their backs: To those unschooled in the invasive art of discovery, these subpoenas sound like a blatant effort to chill anti-gay, anti-trans religious speech.
They are nothing of the sort, of course, but that’s immaterial. Houston, and defenders of the ordinance, now look terrible—to Houston voters, to the judge overseeing the case, to everybody paying attention. And, even worse, the city’s attorneys have given anti-gay activists ostensible evidence that their paranoia about the “totalitarianism” of the gay rights movement was entirely justified. The Christian persecution complex just got an unearned run off the good guys’ error.
First, a sermon is a public proclamation. Not only is a sermon delivered openly in worship where almost every church says all persons are welcome. But also it is an oral, visual presentation that many clergy happily post on their church web sites or release through social media. It was unwise for the civil government in the city of Houston to imagine issuing subpoenas for sermons, but it was also silly for anyone to object. Nobody has to subpoena a sermon. Anybody with access to the internet can just click a few times and most preachers’ sermons are readily available.
Second, it is strange for the conservative critics of the Houston mayor to complain about a political leader who questions the content of sermons. Do they not have any memories of six years ago, during the 2008 campaign for the Presidency? Do they not recall all those conservative critics of candidate Barack Obama who were furious about the sermons preached by the Illinois Senator’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright? Candidate Obama was hounded and harassed by those partisan critics not about what he said but about what his pastor said in a United Church of Christ pulpit in Chicago. Eventually the criticism reached the point that Mr. Obama felt he had no choice except to resign his membership in a congregation to which the Senator had belonged for decades…
Let me throw in the monkey’s wrench here, what if a Mosque is delivering sermons that may cause disturbance in the society, should the Mosque hide behind First Amendment and not share its sermons? We all should be open to scrutiny for public good and need to protect the rights of the individuals that are being violated. We have come a long way in becoming a civil society, one by one; we are becoming what God wanted us to be – to respect all his creation supported by our declaration that all men are created equal. It took us nearly 150 years to recognize that women were equal citizens, then the African Americans, and after many more recognitions we are reaching the pinnacle of civility by including the GLBT community as equal in every aspect of life and honor their legitimate needs in a civil society.
But in all seriousness, perhaps seeing the totalitarianism of extremist wings of the gay rights movement has soured some people on efforts to change marriage law — or at least given people pause about the tradeoffs involved with redefining marriage or enacting broad legislation around sexual or gender identity. We’ve all seen the stories about lawsuits against small business owners. The boycotts against companies for harboring employees who haven’t jumped on the bandwagon and therefore believe marriage is essentially built around sexual complementarity. The public outrage of enthused mobs believing themselves to be on the right side of history…
Much of Christian history is the story of martyrs, people who accepted punishments up to and including death rather than renounce the Gospel of Jesus. This country at times seems poised to add to that story. But Christians at the same time must worry about the consequences of Houston’s attack on religion…
The public’s mostly negative response to the intimidation attempts seen in Houston was so pronounced that Parker now says she agrees with Alliance Defending Freedom that the subpoenas were overly broad. Heck, the whole thing’s so toxic that she’s even claiming she didn’t know about the subpoenas until shortly before she took to Twitter vigorously defending them. But don’t be surprised if these attacks on religious liberty and free speech don’t cause more people to question what we’re being forced to give up — and why — in exchange for expanding gay rights.