Religious liberty vs equal rights in Houston

TEXAS FAITH: Is it ever right to subpoena religious sermons?

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What are the limits, if any, of religious leaders to speak out as a matter of religious faith without facing a government subpoena?

We asked our Texas Faith panel of religious leaders, theologians, academics and faith-based activists what they thought of the clash between faith and politics in Houston. Their responses: diverse and provocative.

“I celebrate the courage of preachers who, like the ancient prophets, become critics of the political system,” said one Texas Faith panelist.

But another said: “Foolish paranoid irrationality aside, the city of Houston does not restrict preachers’ ability to pontificate on why some people should be given human rights, but others should not.”

And there was this: What if they had been mosques? Would Ted Cruz & Co. have been so quick to proclaim religious liberty?

If you think there’s consensus – even among those in the faith community – you’re wrong.

Read the Panel

heart symbol_gay rightsAMY MARTIN, executive director, Earth Rhythms; writer/editor, Moonlady Media

Let me get this straight. Critics of the equal rights ordinance are panicked because a transgender person might use the same public restroom facility as them for a few minutes? One hopes they’ll realize that gay people are using the same restrooms, as well as cross dressers and other people who fall into their category of sinful. Where do they want transgender people to pee, in the street?

Foolish paranoid irrationality aside, the city of Houston does not restrict preachers’ ability to pontificate on why some people should be given human rights, but others should not. In this country, people are free to lobby why prejudice should be institutionalized and even given tax advantages. Because be assured that in Unitarian, Unity, New Thought, spiritual not religious, and many other religious places, those at the pulpit will be advocating just as passionately that God bestows love on all equally and so should we.

But I am confused. Opponents of equal rights in Houston did not get their way in a public vote, so they turned to the courts. That is the American way. In such court cases, each side is to gather all the evidence they can to make their case, using subpoenas if necessary, which is what the city of Houston is doing. So opponents of equal rights are essentially picking a fight, but insisting the other side respond with one arm tied. #DishItOutButCantTakeIt



The city of Houston sparked a firestorm when it subpoenaed the sermons of five pastors who led opposition to the city’s equal rights ordinance. Christian conservative groups and politicians, including Attorney General Greg Abbott and Sen. Ted Cruz, denounced the action as an attack on religious liberty. Faced with the criticism, the city amended its subpoenas to remove any mention of “sermons.” But it still seeks “all speeches or presentations related to” the ordinance and a petition drive aimed at repealing it.

Opponents had mounted the petition drive but the city ruled there weren’t enough valid signatures to put the repeal issue on the ballot. Opponents filed suit. The case is set for trial in January.

The ordinance bans discrimination by businesses that serve the public and in housing and city employment. Religious institutions are exempt. Critics complain the ordinance grants transgender people access to the restroom of their choice in public buildings and businesses, excluding churches.

Mayor Annise Parker says the city wasn’t trying to intrude on matters of faith. She says it just wants to know what pastors advised folks about the petition process. But critics are deeply suspicious the Houston subpoena could set up a test case aimed at revoking the tax exemption of religious organizations that advocate political activity the government doesn’t like.

What to make of the balancing act between the city’s effort to defend its equal rights ordinance and pastors who encouraged people to oppose it in speeches and correspondence?