Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Houston's No HERO for Religion Rights

While much of the United States frets about the increasingly disconcerting Ebola news emanating from Dallas, I'm becoming far more concerned about some disconcerting news emanating from another Texas city.

Down in Houston, city lawyers are reported to have subpoenaed the sermons of several pastors who are believed to have conspired in a politically-motivated fashion against a LGBT-related ballot dispute.

Earlier this year, Houston's city council voted to allow members of the opposite gender to use each other's bathrooms as a show of support for transgendered people.  Their law is called the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or "HERO," and it actually addresses a wide swath of gay-rights-specific issues, of which the shared bathroom provision is but one part.  Churches are exempt from enforcing the city's new law, but businesses could be fined if they don't comply with it.

Houston's mayor, Annise Parker, is the first openly gay mayor of a major city in the United States, and she wants HERO to be a landmark of legacy legislation.  Still, this was not a unanimous vote by Houston's city council, although at 11-6, it passed by a wide margin.  Plenty of Houston voters still oppose it, and especially the prospect of having to share bathrooms with transgendered people.  So, ostensibly on their behalf, the Houston Area Pastors Council (HAPC) filed a petition with 50,000 signatures to revoke the municipal law.  The city attorney's office picked through the petition with a fine-tooth comb and determined that it had  "too many documents with irregularities and problems to overlook."

In response, the HAPC filed suit against the city to block - or at least delay - HERO's implementation.

Up until this part of our story, things had been proceeding - or unraveling, depending on your perspective - according to conventional legislative protocols.  A city council passes an ordinance, a group of people opposing that ordinance calls for its repeal, the petition for repeal is disallowed, and the opponents file a lawsuit to press their case.

Even the specific topic at hand - the right of transgendered people to share public bathrooms with people who aren't - has become fairly normal in some big American cities, as LGBT advocacy becomes more popular in America's increasingly progressive society.

But what Houston did in retaliation for the pastor's lawsuit has many conservatives in a dither.  And rightly so.  Actually, it should have anybody who believes in the freedom of religion at least wary of the precedent being set here.

So far as most anybody has been able to determine, this is the first time a legislative body has forced a court to so broadly subpoena the sermons - as well as other church-related material - of so broad a representation of churches.  While it's become fairly commonplace these days for some courts and lawyers to issue subpoenas like they're firing buckshot, one would hope that a city as supposedly sophisticated as Houston would be cognizant of the bad image doing so to a bunch of religious entities creates.

It's not that sermons are private documents, of course.  They're preached in a public-access building to whomever wants to hear them, right?  So, in a way, these pastors should gladly turn over their sermons in the hopes that whomever reads them down at City Hall - or the courtroom - benefits spiritually from their contents.

For their part, however, the pastors view these subpoenas as a form of harassment intended to scare them away from a protracted fight with the city and its mayor's pursuit of LGBT hero status.  And yes, regardless of whether blanket subpoenas are now commonplace in today's courts, it's clearly creating some negative PR for Houston, at least among traditionalists.

Houston says it has a method to its apparent madness, however.  The city is trying to determine if these pastors preached about the HERO law from the pulpit, or if, in their official pastoral capacity, they were e-mailing church members and advocating against the law.  You see, if the city can prove that the pastors were doing so, then the city could prove that the churches were themselves violating the law by taking sides in an election.

Remember that your pastor cannot tell you how to vote.  Your church - in fact, most non-political non-profits - cannot take sides in specific legislation.  For example, your pastor can preach from the pulpit that homosexuality is a sin, but pastors in the city of Houston could not have have instructed their parishioners specifically to advocate against HERO.

However, if those pastors did, and Houston can prove it through the sermons they've subpoenaed, it still remains unclear how much leverage such proof will provide the city.  Sure, it may make some pastors look bad, but it won't look too good on Houston, either.  Such a subpoena can be interpreted only one way:  malicious disdain for a religious person's right to challenge a law they've a Constitutional right to challenge.

Of course, it does not appear as though the city has subpoenaed the sermons of Houston's ultra-liberal churches, where pastors may have been encouraging their parishioners to advocate in favor of HERO.  This is where the city practically nose-dives into the murky waters of Constitutional heresy.  The city doesn't care if preachers were talking about HERO from the pulpit; the city only cares if certain preachers were talking against HERO from the pulpit.

If the city merely wanted to make sure that its churches were politically pure and non-partisan, and that no political topics such as HERO were being championed or vilified from any of the city's pulpits, that would have been one thing.  As it is, however, the city is only interested in one side of the coin.


Now that we all know the city's game, it's kinda hard for them to talk about honesty and fairness with a straight face - pun intended.

Update 10/16/14:  Apparently, Mayor Parker has had a change of heart.  She's decided to distance the city and herself from the sermon subpoena, even though on Tuesday, she had still been defending it.

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