Houston Sermon Subpoena Scandal: 5 Things You Need to Know

Feeling confused about the Houston sermon subpoena scandal? Here are answers to five questions you may have.

Q: What happened?

A: In May, Houston city government passed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) to ban discrimination based upon sexual orientation or gender identity. After passage, opponents began collecting signatures to add a ballot measure to repeal the new law.

In July, those opponents delivered over 50,000 signatures, well above the 17,269 that were needed, to add the question to the next election ballot. The city secretary approved the signatures, but that decision was later overruled by the mayor and city attorney, who decided that about 35,000 of the signatures were invalid.

The petition organizers then sued the city, arguing that the signatures were valid. As part of the process used to collect evidence for their case, the city, represented by attorneys working pro-bono, subpoenaed communications, including sermon notes and email, from five area pastors related to "HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity." The pastors were not involved in the lawsuit but were involved in encouraging people to sign the petition.

Q: Why did it happen?

A: It depends on who you ask.

Those involved in the lawsuit and their supporters say the purpose of the subpoenas was to send a message to social conservatives that they should stay silent on political issues or they will be harassed by government forces, much like the Internal Revenue Service harassed conservative groups ahead of the 2012 election.

Mayor Annise Parker said this was simply a case of overly-exuberant lawyers who went too far in their search for information, and if she had seen the subpoenas ahead of time, she would not have approved them.

The Christian Post has spoken to sources familiar with the ongoing dispute who believe that Parker is not telling the truth and that she personally directed the subpoenas. They point to this tweet that she initially posted before the story became more controversial and she backed off: "If the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game. Were instructions given on filling out anti-HERO petition?-A." (Her Twitter account notes that all tweets that are directly from her are signed "-A.")

Q: Was the city of Houston wrong to issue the subpoenas?

A: Yes.

There is now broad agreement among experts from across the political spectrum that the city was wrong to issue the subpoenas, including the mayor herself and the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. While lawyers in court cases will often cast a wide net to get as much information as possible that might pertain to the case, they can go too far and abuse their subpoena power.

At a minimum, there is agreement that the subpoenas were overly-broad. Beyond that, freedom of speech and freedom of religion concerns have been raised.

The ACLU of Texas put it this way: "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."

Q: Has some of the rhetoric over this incident been overblown?

A: Likely yes.

If a reader is only paying attention to tweets and headlines rather than the details of this story, they could end up with the impression that the mayor of Houston was going after the sermons of all pastors in order to prosecute those who preach that homosexuality is a sin. This is not the case. Mayor Parker helped to feed that narrative, however, with her extremely tone-deaf tweet saying "sermons are fair game." More likely, this appears to be a case of hardball politics, which is not unusual in the United States, that went awry.

Q: What happens next?

A: The controversy is not over.

On Friday, Mayor Parker announced that she revised the subpoenas. The pastors will now be subpoenaed for all speeches or presentations related to the petition drive or to HERO, but not including sermons.

Counter to her initial "sermons are fair game" tweet, Parker added, "we don't want their sermons," in announcing the change.

In a Friday interview with The Christian Post, Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the five pastors, said the change does not go far enough. They will continue to fight the subpoenas because what the pastors said during the gathering of the signatures "has no bearing on whether the signatures themselves are valid."

"The city just doesn't get it," he added. "The only way to resolve the First Amendment issue is to withdraw the subpoenas entirely."