Houston Backs Off Sermon Subpoenas After Criticism

The city of Houston has rephrased a subpoena, which originally asked five area pastors to hand over sermons, after backlash from religious groups.

Houston Backs Off Sermon Subpoenas After Criticism
Getty Images / Jemal Countess

Following backlash from conservative and Christian groups, the city of Houston is walking back language used in a set of subpoenas targeting sermons given by local pastors. It's a long story.

The controversy starts with an LGBT anti-discrimination bill passed by the city in May. Formally named the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO, it's been dubbed the "bathroom bill" by opponents for allowing transgender people to choose whether they use male or female bathrooms.

The law's opponents organized a petition to put HERO up for referendum on the November ballot — but the city council threw out their attempt, ruling thousands of signatures were improperly collected on that petition. The groups then sued the city to contest that ruling. (Video via KTRK)

And that's what prompted the subpoenas — city lawyers initially ordered five pastors 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."

Houston contended that the order is meant solely to ascertain whether the five pastors misinformed their audience about proper ways to gather anti-HERO signatures — but the language outraged conservatives, who accused the city of infringing free speech and religious liberty.

HOUSTON PASTOR HERNAN CASTANO ON FOX NEWS: "They just want to intimidate, they just want to silence the pastors of America. And they want to have control over religion."

SEN. TED CRUZ: "The government will not intrude on the pulpit or try to silence our pastors."

And condemnation of the subpoenas wasn't limited to the right. Slate's LGBT blog calls the language "incredibly stupid, instantly regrettable, and utterly unnecessary."

Houston mayor Annise Parker said in a press conference she didn't read the subpoena before it was issued, and agreed to walk back the language.

MAYOR ANNISE PARKER: "There's no question the wording was overly broad. But I also think there was some deliberate misinterpretation on the other side."

The city has dropped the word sermon from the subpoenas, focusing specifically on petition efforts rather than the broader debate around HERO or LGBT rights. But that might not be enough to appease the critics.

As a representative for the five pastors told Christian news outlet World, "The problem isn’t just the fact that the subpoenas asked for 'sermons.' The problem is that the subpoenas were sent at all to pastors who were simply exercising their right to free speech and freedom of religion"

Mayor Parker has maintained the city has a right to subpoena church documents, including sermons, if they pertain to the pending suit.