David Davenport called out Houston in Forbes:
It was disclosed this week that attorneys for the city of Houston, Texas have subpoenaed sermons and other writings from local ministers who are opposed to the new Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) championed by its mayor. This would seem to be such an obvious violation of the First Amendment free speech and freedom of religion of pastors that one wonders how lawyers and judges, who presumably studied constitutional law, could have allowed it to get this far.
Annise Parker, the first openly gay mayor of Houston, has made HERO, which extends equal rights protections to gay and transgender residents, a central plank of her leadership platform. A number of Houston pastors have joined a drive to repeal the new ordinance, collecting over 50,000 signatures, with only 17,259 required, to place the matter on the ballot.
As part of the court action, the city thinks it should review sermons and writings of these ministers, apparently concerned whether they are engaged in politics and electioneering from their pulpits in violation of the churches’ tax exempt status. Before we even get to the First Amendment, however, such tax exemptions are a matter of federal and state law, not municipal authority, so Houston has no business even pursuing that question. Strike one.
To say that these subpoenas are overly broad would be quite an understatement. The question raised by the lawsuit is whether the petitions collected sufficient legal signatures to support a ballot measure to repeal it. The arguments pertain to the documentation and form of the signatures, with the city claiming that all but 15,249 of them are legally flawed. This has nothing to do with what any pastor said or wrote. So again, even before we reach the First Amendment questions, these subpoenas take strike two.
But most outrageous of all is the obvious violation of the First Amendment. Churches and pastors are specifically protected in their speech and religious practice under the First Amendment. The only legitimate legal challenge would have to come from the IRS (which has its own conservative witch-hunt reputation to live down) or state taxing authorities. The latitude given to any Constitutionally-guaranteed rights such as those under the First Amendment is broad indeed, and it would take a lengthy and elaborate case to conclude the pastors overstepped their bounds. A court-issued subpoena over a repeal election is hardly the right legal setting for this. Strike three.
Russell Moore @drmoore added:
The churches, and pastors, of Houston ought to respond to this sort of government order with the same kind of defiance the Apostle Paul showed the magistrates in Philippi. After an earthquake, sent by God, upturned the prison where Paul and Silas were held, Luke tells us that the officials sent the police to tell Paul and Silas they could go. Paul replied. “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned men who are Roman citizens and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly. No! Let them come themselves and take us out” (Acts 16:37).
A government has no business using subpoena power to intimidate or bully the preaching and instruction of any church, any synagogue, any mosque, or any other place of worship. The pastors of Houston should tell the government that they will not trample over consciences, over the First Amendment and over God-given natural rights.
The separation of church and state means that we will render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and we will. But the preaching of the church of God does not belong to Caesar, and we will not hand it over to him. Not now. Not ever.