Houston city attorneys change approach to sermon subpoenas



HOUSTON — Houston city attorneys are no longer seeking through subpoenas sermons from five pastors who publicly opposed an ordinance banning discrimination against gay and transgender residents.

Mayor Annise Parker said Friday that the city was backing off the sermon request but would not withdraw the subpoenas, which seek other information from the pastors as part of a lawsuit over a petition drive to repeal the equal rights ordinance.

“They were too broad,” Parker said at a news conference. “They were typical attorney language in a discovery motion. They were asking for everything but the kitchen sink.”

While the word “sermons” was being deleted from the subpoenas, the revised request for other speeches or presentations was appropriate, Parker said.

“This is not about what anyone is preaching; this is not about their religion; it’s not about the free exercise of religion,” she said. “It is our right to defend the city and asking legitimate questions about the petition process.”

In May, the City Council passed the equal rights ordinance, which consolidates city bans on discrimination based on sex, race, age, religion and other categories and increases protections for gay and transgender residents. Parker, who is gay, and other supporters said the measure is about offering protections at the local level against all forms of discrimination in housing, employment and services provided by private businesses such as hotels and restaurants.

Religious institutions are exempt, but city attorneys recently subpoenaed the pastors, seeking all speeches, presentations or sermons related to the repeal petition.

Christian activists had sued after city officials ruled they didn’t collect enough signatures to get the question on the ballot. The city secretary initially counted enough signatures, but then city attorney David Feldman ruled that more than half of the pages of the petition were invalid.

Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian religious rights legal organization that filed the motion to quash the subpoenas, said the city “still doesn’t get it.”

“It thinks that by changing nothing in its subpoenas other than to remove the word ‘sermons’ that it has solved the problem,” Stanley said. “That solves nothing.”

Subpoenas still demand 17 different categories of information that encompass speeches made by the pastors and private communications with their church members, he said.

“They must be rescinded entirely,” Stanley said, contending the city needs to respect First Amendment religious freedoms.

Feldman said that the subpoenas were routine in the give-and-take between lawyers in a lawsuit and that the now-contentious matter could have been defused in negotiations involving attorneys for both sides.

“They decided to make it a media circus,” he said.

The controversy has touched a nerve among religious conservatives around the country, already anxious about the rapid spread of gay rights and what it might mean for faith groups that object. Religious groups, including some that support civil rights protections for gays, have protested the subpoenas as a violation of religious freedom.

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