While it doesn't seem like there would often be a reason to issue a subpoena over a sermon, on Tuesday state Representative Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican, filed a bill for the upcoming 85th Biennial Legislative Session that will make it impossible for the government to force religious figures to hand over their sermons.
In other words, Huffman is trying to see to it that Houston's infamous "sermon subpoenas," issued back in 2014 in the middle of the contentious fight over the city's equal rights ordinance, will never happen again. Then-Houston Mayor Annise Parker made, let's say, a slight miscalculation when she allowed the controversial "sermon subpoenas" to be issued against five local religious leaders who had been vocal opponents of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.
The subpoenas were issued by the city attorney's office as part of a lawsuit Houston was in over a petition filed to put HERO on the ballot. The activists and religious leaders working against the equal rights ordinance had submitted the signatures to force the city to put the ordinance up for a vote, but city officials had thrown out pages of signatures, insisting that they were improperly gathered.
And then the subpoenas were issued during the discovery phase of the lawsuit, requesting “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.”
The move did not go over well.
Once the word broke, conservative leaders were apoplectic and urged people to send Parker sermons and Bibles. They did, and soon thereafter, Parker withdrew the subpoenas. (HERO was subsequently put on the ballot and the ordinance was defeated.)
But now, with Senate Bill 24, Huffman has decided to try to get legislation in place to prevent sermons from ever being the focus of subpoenas. The bill, filed on Tuesday, proposes to make sermons privileged from disclosure. Specifically:
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"A governmental unit may not, in any civil action or other civil or administrative proceeding to which the governmental unit is a party, compel the production or disclosure of a written copy or audio or video recording of a sermon delivered by a religious leader during religious worship of a religious organization or compel the religious leader to testify regarding the sermon."
Huffman filed the bill with little fanfare. (We've asked for comment but haven't heard back yet. We'll update when and if we do.)
However, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick eagerly jumped on the anti-"sermon subpoena" bandwagon, sending out a statement announcing his support for Huffman's bill, with a little nod to the holidays and religious freedom along the way.
"One of my top priorities is to protect our First Amendment right to religious liberty, something we particularly treasure during the holiday season," Patrick stated. "SB24 will give pastors critical protection from forced testimony and shield sermons from government subpoena power."