In a tone-deaf moment of legal strategy, the City of Houston last month sent local pastors critical of the city's anti-discrimination ordinance sweeping subpoenas for notes and sermons.
The move comes in a lawsuit challenging the City of Houston for throwing out a petition from anti-HERO (Houston Equal Rights Ordinance) Christians that sought to repeal the law and put it to a ballot referendum. In their vociferous opposition to the ordinance, which bans anti-gay discrimination (with an exemption for religious organizations), religious-right groups were most riled up about the provision allowing transgender people barred from a restroom to file a complaint with the city. In circulating their petition, the group -- led, in part, by Jared Woodfill, former Harris County Republican Party chairman -- claimed that the ordinance threatens "the physical and emotional safety of our women and children!"
But last month's subpoenas by the City of Houston, which only came to light this past week when attorneys filed a motion to quash the request, weren't lobbed at any of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the city. The subpoenas targeted pastors who have been vocal critics of the anti-discrimination ordinance, including Hernan Castano, Magda Hermida, Khan Huynh, Steve Riggle, and David Welch.
And the subpoenas were far reaching. Among other documents, the city asked the pastors to turn over records related to...
-- Mayor Annise Parker, City Attorney David Feldman, HERO or any HERO drafts, and any copies or drafts for the petition to repeal the ordinance -- Anything related to "the topics of equal rights, civil rights, homosexuality, or gender identity" -- Any language related to restroom access or "any discussion about whether or how HERO does or does not impact restroom access" -- Communication with anyone at the religious right group Alliance Defending Freedom, which has criticized the ordinance -- AND (here's the kicker) "all speeches, presentation, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by your or in your possession."
On Tuesday, Feldman took a tough stance when he talked to the Chron's Katherine Driessen. Feldman (neither he nor the mayor's office returned our calls) referred to a video that surfaced this summer, showing Welch, pastor of Bear Creek Church and director of the Houston Area Pastor Council, leading his flock through the anti-HERO petition signature-gathering process. "If someone is speaking from the pulpit and it's political speech, then it's not going to be protected," Feldman told the daily.
Cue the religious right backlash, and claims from the Alliance Defending Freedom - which is representing the pastors, and has asked a judge to quash the city's request - that the City of Houston, led by its first lesbian mayor, is infringing on the rights of religious groups. Attorney General and frontrunner for governor Greg Abbott asked Feldman to "immediately withdraw" the request. The Chron's editorial board, which has supported the equal rights ordinance, called the subpoenas "Orwellian." U.S. Senate blowhard Ted Cruz jumped in, saying Mayor Parker "should be ashamed."
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Russel Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote: "A government has no business using subpoena power to intimidate or bully the preaching and instruction of any church, any synagogue, any mosque, or any other place of worship. The pastors of Houston should tell the government that they will not trample over consciences, over the First Amendment and over God-given natural rights."
Feldman and Parker have since softened their tone (sort of), blaming the overly-broad subpoena on one of Houston's highest-priced law firms, Susman Godfrey, L.L.P., which is helping represent the city in the anti-HERO lawsuit and apparently filed the subpoenas. And on Wednesday, Feldman narrowed the subpoena to any communications the pastors had specifically regarding the petition process.
But damage done. And still, Parker and Feldman don't really seem that apologetic. Here's part of what the Chron picked up during Parker's damage-control press conference yesterday:
"There's no question the wording was overly broad," she (Parker) said. "But I also think there was some misinterpretation on the other side." ... "Let me just say that one word in a very long legal document which I know nothing about and would never have read and I'm vilified coast to coast," Parker said. "It's a normal day at the office for me."