Houston Mayor Subpoenas Pastors’ Sermons

Annise Parker is the first openly lesbian mayor of Houston, Texas. In June 2014, the city of Houston passed a bill called the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) which, among other things, allows persons of “confused gender identity” to use public restrooms of their choice. In other words, men may use women’s bathrooms, and women may use men’s bathrooms. The controversial law immediately drew attempts to have it repealed. Many worked to gather signatures to force the city authorities to place the bill on the ballot to allow voters, rather than politicians, to decide its fate. A broadly interdenominational coalition of pastors and churches led opposition to the law. On August 1, the secretary of the city of Houston announced that a sufficient number of valid, qualified signatures had been submitted, but shortly thereafter Houston’s city attorney threw out the petition. The case proceeded to court for adjudication.

At this point, the case becomes chilling for free speech and freedom of religion—rights protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Attorneys for the mayor’s office have demanded—subpoenaed—from a number of Houston area pastors a long list of documentation, among other things, “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.” The word subpoena comes from two Latin words, “under” and “penalty.” To defy a subpoena, an official request for information, is to be in contempt of court, punishable by either fines or imprisonment or both.

In America—in Texas!—pastors are threatened with penalties if they do not hand over copies of their sermons! The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), representing five pastors, is challenging the subpoena in court, asking that the subpoena be quashed. The ADF argues, among other things, that

…the discovery requests are overbroad, unduly burdensome, harassing, and vexatious. They are so much so, in fact, that it appears they were designed to punish the Nonparty Pastors for being part of the coalition that invoked the City Charter’s referendum provision, and discourage them and other citizens from ever doing so again. The message is clear: oppose the decisions of city government, and drown in unwarranted, burdensome discovery requests. These requests, if allowed, will have a chilling effect on future citizens who might consider circulating referendum petitions because they are dissatisfied with ordinances passed by the City Council. Not only will the Nonparty Pastors be harmed if these discovery requests are allowed, but the People will suffer as well. The referendum process will become toxic and the People will be deprived of an important check on city government provided them by the Charter.1

Following a public outcry, Parker backed down. On October 15, she tweeted, “If the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game.” Later she admitted that the subpoenas were overly broad, and on October 29, the city of Houston withdrew them. There was even a campaign to send Bibles to Mayor Parker—she received in the region of a thousand Bibles from across the USA.

It is not my intention to comment on the legality and constitutionality of the subpoena—that would be the task of the rubric “Church and State.” Rather, I want to comment on this as a sign of the times, a sign of increasing intolerance for Christians, a sign of mounting persecution for Christians in the Western world, and to give some perspective. Iniquity is abounding, the love of many grows cold, and the church is hated by all nations, just as Jesus warned (Matt. 24:9-13).

First, for Christians, the First Amendment is useful—and I write as a non-American without First Amendment rights, although there is some form of freedom of speech in Europe—but not sacrosanct. The U.S. Constitution is not the Bible, and Christians in many ages have lived—and died—without First Amendment privileges. In fact, in church history, freedom of speech has been very rare. Our spiritual forefathers did not have freedom of speech. The church must not panic. She can survive without the First Amendment.

Second, if a Christian has legal rights and protections, by all means let him use them to further the cause of the gospel. Paul was a Roman citizen with certain rights that he asserts on occasion. In Acts 16:37 Paul said, “They have beaten us openly and uncondemned, being Romans, and have cast us into prison; and now do they thrust us out privily? Nay verily; but let them come themselves and fetch us out.” Later, Paul avoided being scourged by asserting his rights as a Roman citizen: “And as they bound him with thongs, Paul said unto the centurion that stood by, Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman, and uncondemned?” (Acts 22:25). Paul was willing to suffer as a Christian, but if that suffering could be avoided, he availed himself of that opportunity also. Therefore, it is perfectly legitimate for the pastors to seek to quash the subpoenas with the help of the ADF.

Third, when pastors bring politics into the pulpit, they bring needless trouble upon themselves. I do not know if that was the case with the plaintiffs in this case, but I have seen many examples of the pulpit misused for political purposes. Our calling as Reformed pastors is to preach sermons that expose the sins in our own congregations, and in our own hearts, to warn against the temptations of the world that endanger our congregations, and to bring the comfort of the gospel to our people, as well as to preach the gospel to the unconverted. And when we preach, we will have a text that we exegete and apply. Preachers need to be faithful to God’s Word, which is not the same as delivering political harangues from their pulpits.

Fourth, the authorities’ interest in the pastor’s sermons is puzzling, and troubling. Do they want to check whether the pastor’s have condemned sin from the pulpit; do they want to assess their political involvement and advocacy with a view to challenging the churches’ tax exempt status, for religious organizations in the U.S. are not permitted to endorse political candidates or encourage people to vote for or against specific legislation issues. Would you be happy if your pastor’s sermons were scrutinized to see if he had ever criticized homosexuality or addressed “gender identity”? And with many of our sermons online, will subpoenas even be necessary for that purpose?

Fifth, God’s Word does not forbid the handing over of our sermons for scrutiny. If a court demands a copy of our sermons, we do not sin if—after having exhausted all legal avenues to overturn the subpoena—we comply. We do sin, however, if, after having our sermons scrutinized, we water down the Word to avoid further persecution. In Acts 4:18 the authorities commanded the apostles “not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus,” an order that Peter and John respectfully defied: “We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (v. 20). Later, the authorities complained, “Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine…” (Acts 5:28). The apostles’ response was clear: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (v. 29). We preach that marriage is between one man and one woman; that homosexuality, lesbianism, adultery and fornication are sin; and (against modern transgenderism) that “He that made them at the beginning made them male and female” (Matt. 19:4). Perhaps reading the sermons of Christian pastors will do the mayor and her legal team good. One could hope that exposure to good sermons would bring Mayor Parker and others under conviction of sin and to saving faith in Jesus Christ. In our sermons we “by manifestation of the truth, [commend] ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (II Cor. 4:2). Christian pastors have nothing to hide.

Above all, we do not fear. God is sovereign over the ineffectual attempts of Satan to destroy the church. God will preserve His truth. May we be faithful. Pray that God would give pastors courage in these dark days. Let us follow Him who said, “I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:4-5).

1 “Memorandum in Support of Nonparty Pastors’ Amended Motion to Quash Subpoenas to Produce Documents or Tangible Evidence or Otherwise Issue a Protective Order,” http://www.adfmedia. org/files/WoodfillQuashBrief.pdf (accessed October 15, 2014).