In May, the city council of Houston, Texas passed an anti-discrimination act called the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO.
One of the more controversial portions of the ordinance, which was later dropped, would have required all public places to allow transgender individuals to use the restrooms, locker rooms, and shower facilities designated for the sex with which they identify.
Despite the removal of the most controversial provision, the ordinance generated a recall effort by concerned citizens who feared that the provision allowed predators easy access to victims.
Organizers of the recall petition needed 17,000 signatures in order to force a referendum on the bill and they succeeded in collecting 55,000, which they submitted to City Secretary Anna Russell. On Aug. 1, Russell confirmed that the petitioners had submitted 17, 846 valid signatures.
City Attorney David Feldman, citing irregularities in the way the signatures were gathered and the signatures themselves, invalidated the petition.
The organizers immediately filed suit, claiming that the city attorney and Mayor had overstepped their authority.
On Sept. 10, in response to the lawsuit, the Houston City Attorney’s office issued a subpoena to five area pastors that demanded they turn over “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.”
In addition to this, the subpoena demanded other documents, including private emails and text messages to and from members of their congregations.
The five pastors who were subpoenaed are not party to the lawsuit. Many people view this move by the city of Houston as an attack on religious liberty as specifically granted by the First Amendment.
This action has caused so much outcry that Attorney General Greg Abbott sent a letter to Feldman that urged him to withdraw the subpoenas, saying:
“No matter what public policy is at stake, government officials must exercise the utmost care when our work touches on religious matters. If we err, it must be on the side of preserving the autonomy of religious institutions and the liberty of religious believers. Your aggressive and invasive subpoenas show no regard for the very serious First Amendment considerations at stake.”
In response to the criticism, Mayor Parker has slightly amended the subpoena to not include the words or “sermons” and some other things in it. However, the subpoena still demands much private information from the pastors.
These actions by the government in Houston have brought up the issues of relevance and privacy as well as discussions about the broadness of the subpoena and whether or not the city has the right to demand private communications such as email and text message from people who are not party to the lawsuit.
Many people feel like the moves by the city government of Houston is in direct violation of the First Amendment, and that the subpoena, at the very least, needs to be severely modified in order to comply with the law.
On behalf of the pastors, the Alliance Defending Freedom has filed a motion to suspend the subpoena. The next step will be to see whether the motion is upheld or not.
A copy of the unrevised subpoena issued to Pastor David Welch has been posted online at washburnreview.org.
Source information came from the aforementioned subpoena and The Texas Tribune.