After controversy erupted over the city of Houston’s plan to subpoena pastors to hand over their sermons if they contained messages about homosexuality and similar issues, officials have decided to ask for “speeches” rather than sermons.
Mayor Annise Parker, the city’s first openly lesbian mayor, announced last week that the city would narrow the scope of the subpoenas for the five pastors. The subpoenas now don’t include the word “sermons.” The idea to subpoena the five pastors came after the passing of a new non-discrimination ordinance in the city, called the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, and Parker says that the original intent of the subpoenas was never to filter what the pastors were saying.
“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," Parker said. "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."
"If during the course of the sermon - and I doubt this very much - a pastor took 15 or 20 minutes to go into detail about how the petition process goes, then that's part of the discovery," Parker explained. "But that's not about preaching a sermon on anybody's religious beliefs, it's not conveying a religious message; that's part of the petition process, and all we're interested in is the petition process."
The petition mentioned by Parker was drafted by opponents of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, and while the ordinance itself exempts religious institutions from discrimination, the purpose of the subpoena is to ensure that pastors are not promoting the petition.
"The mayor needs to get the city out of the business of subpoenaing churches. There's absolutely no reason for this city to be trampling on the First Amendment rights of these pastors," said Jared Woodfill, a conservative leader and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the city for the passing of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. "It starts with these five, and then who's next? There were pastors all across the state talking about the HERO ordinance."