Pastor Steve Riggle, of Houston's Grace Community Church, one of five pastors whose sermons were subpeoned by the city. Photo via Facebook
In Texas, it doesn’t take much to make certain Christian conservatives claim they’re being persecuted for their faith. Their claims usually range from dubious to bonkers and make the normal rounds around the conservative blogosphere before being washed away by some fresh iniquity. But recently, the openly gay Democratic mayor of the state’s largest city—Houston’s Annise Parker—gave something for conservatives to really cry about.
Last week, word broke that pro bono attorneys defending the city of Houston from a lawsuit had issued sweeping subpoenas of religious materials to five local pastors in September. Those pastors were part of the vocal opposition to the recently passed Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which bans discrimination based on several characteristics including sexual orientation and gender expression. The subpoenas demanded, among other things, “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.”
Backlash was swift. Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz called it a “shocking and shameful…assault on religious liberty.” The editorial board of the Houston Chronicle, which supported HERO, called the subpoenas “Orwellian.” Even Equality Texas, a gay rights advocacy group, called on Parker to withdraw the requests. Faced with massive outcry, the city narrowed the scope of the subpoenas, taking out the word “sermon” and limiting the topics to HERO specifically. But the damage was done, leaving even supporters of the ordinance asking, “Why the hell would you do that?”
It’s a good question. For a solid six months, Parker, who has called HERO “the most personally satisfying and most personally meaningful thing I will do as mayor,” held the public-relations high ground. Back in April, when she announced her plan, most interested parties were on board, including the largest business groups in this vigorously pro-business town. The proposal was modest enough: authenticated discrimination (say, black men being told a club was full while white patrons got in) would warrant mediation and, if the problem persisted, a fine. Small businesses and religious groups would be exempt. Burning folks at the stake this was not.
Parker was helped, in PR terms, by some of the more extreme elements of the opposition. Some local pastors and small-time politicos fixated on a proposed section of HERO that would have let people use the bathroom aligned with their gender presentation, rather than their assigned-at-birth sex, dubbing the whole plan the “Sexual Predator Protection Act.” They imagined male rapists would put on dresses to access women-only spaces and commit crimes, something those rapists have apparently only been prevented from doing by traditional bathroom etiquette. Eventually, Parker stripped out the bathroom language, and after significant hullaballoo, the city council passed HERO in May.
Unsurprisingly, the opposition responded by starting a petition to put an ordinance repealing the law on the ballot this November. They only needed about 17,269 signatures and turned in plenty by the deadline, which city secretary initially said was sufficient. But then the city attorney stepped in, reviewed the petitions for adherence to the city charter—verifying, for example, that the signature-gatherer be a Houston resident and sign each page he or she collects—and threw out half of the almost 5,200 petition pages. That’s when HERO opponents sued, saying the original count should stand and that the city attorney illegally inserted himself into the process. The case is slated for January; meanwhile, implementation of the HERO is on hold.
Parker’s answer to the subpoena outrage is essentially that she wasn’t responsible. Much of the city’s defense is being handled pro bono by a local law firm, and Parker claims she wasn’t even aware of the subpoenas until last week. But neither was she as horrified or contrite as would be expected. “There’s no question the wording was overly broad,” Parker said at a press conference last week. “But I also think there was some misinterpretation on the other side.” She added that being “vilified from coast to coast” was just a “normal day at the office for me.”
So why did the law firm subpoena the sermons? Because the named pastors are believed to have instructed their congregants on how to collect signatures for the repeal petition. That’s relevant for two reasons. First, as tax-exempt nonprofits, churches aren’t supposed to do any electioneering, meaning some petitions may have been collected in an unlawful context. Second, the parties suing the city are claiming that their petitions shouldn’t be held to the city charter’s precise and arcane rules about how to collect petitions. If Houston’s attorneys can prove that signature collectors knew the rules and flouted them anyway—something that sermons or speeches related to HERO might demonstrate—it would strengthen the city’s case that all those thousands of pages of petition signatures should be disqualified. At least one video has surfaced of a pastor—David Welch, director of the Houston Area Pastor Council and one of those subpoenaed—using a Powerpoint video to train his flock in proper petition collection.
And why did the city need everything in a pastor’s possession related to homosexuality? Bottom line, it didn’t. The subpoenas demanded far more than was reasonable and frankly looked like intimidation. The Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization, has filed a motion to quash the subpoenas, and though the city curtailed its request, conservative leaders are keeping up the clamor. But Mayor Parker is unlikely to give any more ground. The PR damage is already done, and she’s in her last permitted term as Houston’s mayor. Although enforcement of the HERO is on hold until after the lawsuit, which is scheduled to be tried in January, Mayor Parker has to some degree already won. Her most personal achievement will be safe from the ballot in November.
Emily DePrang is a staff writer for The Texas Observer. Follow her on Twitter.