Fox News helped turn a bogus story about subpoenas sent to a handful of Houston pastors into a national rallying cry for religious liberty. Now the network is helping promote an event that will pit some of the country’s most extreme anti-LGBT voices against the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance.
In May, the city of Houston made history by enacting the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), a measure that prohibits discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and several other categories.
The ordinance was championed by the city’s first openly gay mayor, Democrat Annise Parker.
Opponents of HERO — led by the Houston Area Pastor Council — responded by launching an effort to put a repeal of the ordinance on the ballot in November. Their campaign peddled the myth that HERO would allow men and sexual predators to enter women’s restrooms — a myth that was widely circulated by local media.
Though opponents submitted the required number of signatures to put the repeal on the ballot, City Attorney Dave Feldman determined that many of the signatures were collected improperly, and the city announced that not enough valid signatures had been collected.
Opponents quickly filed a lawsuit to have the signatures reviewed, prompting the city to respond by issuing subpoenas to five local pastors for a broad range of documents — including sermons and personal communications — related to their opposition to HERO.
On October 14, Fox News reporter and serial misinformer Todd Starnes broke the news of the subpoenas, misleadingly characterizing them as an “attempt to deconstruct religious liberty” and describing HERO as a “bathroom bill.” Starnes’ report relied heavily on spin from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the extreme right-wing legal group representing the pastors in their effort to quash the subpoenas. ADF attorney Christina Holcomb called the subpoenas “an inquisition designed to stifle any critique of [the city’s] actions.”
Before long, Starnes’ report made the jump to Fox News’ airwaves. On October 15, Starnes appeared on The Kelly File to discuss the story, describing HERO as a measure that would let “men who identify as women” to use women’s restrooms:
Starnes’ appearance was followed by a barrage of misleading segments about the story, all of which depicted the subpoenas as an attack on religious liberty. Multiple Fox personalities incorrectly described the subpoenas as part of the enforcement of HERO, suggesting that the ordinance might criminalize anti-gay speech. Others repeated Starnes’ lie that HERO would allow men to use women’s restrooms. By the end of the week, in just three days of coverage, Fox had spent nearly thirty minutes of airtime peddling its Houston horror story*.
Fox’s panicked coverage was grossly misleading and left out crucial details about the anti-HERO lawsuit. But it worked perfectly as a right-wing horror story about Christians being victimized by a city’s attempt to protect LGBT people.
Soon, Houston had become — as one Fox anchor put it — “ground zero for religious liberty.” Conservative media outlets quickly regurgitated the victimization spin from Starnes and ADF. Conservative groups — led by the notorious anti-gay hate group the Family Research Council (FRC) — began organizing “I Stand Sunday,” a November 2 rally in Houston to support the pastors who had been “unduly intimidated by the city’s Mayor.”