Houston Sermon Subpoenas May 'Launch a Thousand Right-Wing Fundraising Letters,' Secular Group Fears

The group Texas Values Action holds a demonstration against the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.
The group Texas Values Action holds a demonstration against the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. | (Photo: Texas Values Action)

A church and state watchdog group has warned that the recent controversy over Houston city officials subpoenaing sermons from pastors may create a major conservative fundraising effort.

Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State wrote that Houston's legal move against pastors who oppose their recently passed LGBT ordinance will create a conservative backlash.

Writing for the Washington, D.C.-based group's blog "Wall of Separation," Boston argued that the incident "will launch a thousand right-wing fund-raising letters."

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"The officials have handed the Religious Right an incredible public relations victory," wrote Boston, adding that "this incident has become fodder for the Religious Right's 'we're being persecuted' campaign. At the end of the day, that's what's so unfortunate about the city's misstep: These subpoenas will launch a thousand right-wing fund-raising letters."

The subpoenaed sermons incident derived from a months-long debate over the controversial Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker speaks in Los Angeles, March 8, 2014.
Houston Mayor Annise Parker speaks in Los Angeles, March 8, 2014. | (Photo: Reuters/David McNew)

In May, the Houston City Council approved the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance in a vote of 11 to 6. Mayor Annise Parker was a strong proponent of the measure, known by the acronym, HERO.

HERO amended Chapters 2, 15 and 17 of Houston's Code of Ordinances, prohibiting discrimination in public facilities and private employment on the basis of "protected characteristics."

This list of protected characteristics includes race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, sex, familial and marital status, military status, disability, religion, genetic information, pregnancy, sexual orientation and gender identity.

Opponents of HERO claimed it will have several unintended consequences, like allowing transgendered men to use women's restrooms.

Supporters of HERO countered that the ordinance does not allow men to use women's restrooms and has exemptions for private businesses and religious organizations.

The conservative Texas Values Action organization turned in an estimated 50,000 signatures to repeal HERO, well above the 17,269 required by law.

City attorney David Feldman concluded that many of the signatures were invalid and thus Texas Values did not obtain the necessary number of valid signatures for a referendum.

A small group of conservatives sued in response to the Feldman decision, leading to a court case wherein arguments will be heard in January.

Last week it was revealed that city attorneys had subpoenaed local pastors who had been critical of HERO but were not involved in the lawsuit against the city.

Organizations across the ideological spectrum, from the Southern Baptist Convention to the American Civil Liberties Union, have denounced the subpoenas.yes

Americans United was among the organizations that expressed concern at the news of Houston demanding subpoenas, a point emphasized by Boston in his recent blog entry.

"Lawyers often use these types of aggressive tactics for individuals who are direct parties to a lawsuit, but since these pastors aren't parties, this looked like an overreach. The demand to see the pastors' sermons struck many as especially audacious," wrote Boston.

Since the controversy erupted, Parker has taken steps back from the initial subpoenas, calling the actions of Houston officials unintentionally broad.

Parker has since narrowed the focus of the subpoenas on the five pastors, changing the request from "sermons" to "speeches."

"We don't need to intrude on matters of faith to have equal rights in Houston, and it was never the intention of the city of Houston to intrude on any matters of faith or to get between a pastor and their parishioners," said Parker in a statement.

"We don't want their sermons; we want the instructions on the petition process. That's always what we wanted, and, again, they knew that's what we wanted because that's the subject of the lawsuit."

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