Religious leaders in Texas will no longer be subject to state laws requiring them to obey subpoenas by providing copies of sermons or testifying about sermons.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas signed Senate Bill 24 during a service inside the Grace Church in The Woodlands on May 21, reports the Houston Chronicle.
SB 24, written by Republican state Sen. Joan Huffman, says the government cannot "compel the production or disclosure of a written copy or audio or video recording of a sermon delivered by a religious leader during religious worship ... or compel the religious leader to testify regarding the sermon," notes The Texas Tribune.
Abbott touted the new law to the congregation, who do not have the same rights under Texas law to ignore subpoenas like religious leaders now can:
Texas law now will be your strength and your sword and your shield. You will be shielded by any effort by any other government official in any other part of the state of Texas from having subpoenas to try to pry into what you’re doing here in your churches.
Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick joined were joined by Pastor Steve Riggle and three other religious leaders whose sermons were lawfully subpoenaed in 2014 because the pastors were part of a political petition drive to overturn a Houston nondiscrimination ordinance that protected LGBT people, according to the Houston Chronicle.
At the time, then-Houston Mayor Annise Parker said the city wanted to know what instructions the pastors gave regarding the political petition drive, but the subpoenas of the pastors' sermons were portrayed as violating their religious freedom.
"You are fighters for freedom," Abbott told the church.
Meanwhile, Patrick shifted the focus to the controversial issue of bathrooms access for transgender people: "The Sermon Protection Act came about because of an issue, an issue that's not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue," Patrick stated. "It's the right issue, and that's to keep men out of ladies' rooms."
Patrick was referring to the nondiscrimination ordinance, which did not mention public bathrooms.
The Houston Chronicle notes that it is already against the law to assault someone in a bathroom, but conservatives ran an ad against the nondiscrimination ordinance that showed a male predator following a little girl into a bathroom stall, suggesting that transgender people were sexual predators.
Some legal experts have said the new law could actually help protect religious leaders who are suspected of sex abuse.
"We never thought we'd need [the sermon law], but this is a crazy day," Riggle stated. "We never thought we'd have to define men and women either, but here we are. We thought the name on the restroom doors actually meant something."