Houston mayor withdraws subpoenas for sermons

HOUSTON –Mayor Annise Parker during a press conference Wednesday defended the city’s subpoenas of local pastors calling them “legal, and valid, and appropriate” even as she called on City Attorney Dave Feldman to withdraw the court orders.

The withdrawal of subpoenas of five pastors came after two weeks of national criticism from Parker’s political foes and allies including the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, who criticized the original subpoenas that called for the pastors’ sermons. But meetings Tuesday with local and out-of-state pastors proved the tipping point in convincing the mayor to backtrack on the orders.

None of the subpoenaed pastors or those involved in the lawsuit against the city were included in the meetings.

Although thankful the subpoenas have been recalled, Pastor Dave Welch, executive director of the Houston Area Pastor Council and one of those subpoenaed, said the damage to religious liberties has already been done.

“If we have a single person, or two, who have positions of authority who can take away the voting rights of a million, we no longer live in a constitutional republic,” he said speaking on a local radio show Thursday morning.

Welch was referring to the lawsuit against the city alleging Feldman violated the city charter by dismissing thousands of signatures on a petition calling for the repeal of a controversial ordinance championed by the mayor. Invalidating the signatures, which had already been certified by City Secretary Anna Russell, meant the issue would not go before the Houston voters.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, which supports the ordinance, cautioned the mayor with regard to the original petitions.

“While a lot of things are fair game in a lawsuit, government must use special care when intruding into matters of faith. The government should never engage in fishing expeditions into the inner workings of a church, and any request for information must be carefully tailored to seek only what is relevant to the dispute,” the ACLU noted in an Oct. 17 press release.

In her press conference Wednesday, Parker ceded the original subpoenas calling for pastors’ sermons were overly broad and a point of concern for clergy. The call for sermons was withdrawn, but Parker was hard pressed to withdraw the subpoenas in their entirety.

“The existing subpoenas, which are focused solely on the collection of data for the petition, are legal and valid and appropriate,” Parker told the press while surrounded by local pastors.

But criticism of the subpoenas also came from those who supported the controversial ordinance calling for civil rights protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Houston Pastor Rudy Rasmus stood with Parker during a press conference in defense of the ordinance when the petition’s 50,000 signatures were delivered to the city July 3. Local pastors Chris Seay and Jim Herrington also supported the city ordinance and its legal fight but joined Rasmus Tuesday in a meeting asking Parker to withdraw the subpoenas.

The mayor said she left that meeting unpersuaded.

More pressure was brought to bear in a second meeting later that day with seven pastors from out of state.

“Our concern was very limited,” Rob Schenck, a minister and president of the National Clergy Council, told the TEXAN.

According to a press release from the mayor’s office other pastors included Pat Mahoney of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Myle Crowder from Utah, David Anderson from Florida, Sean Sloan from Arkansas and two others.

Confronting the mayor about the subpoenas—not the ordinance—was their objective. Schenck said pastors across the country told him they were “alarmed and intimidated” by the subpoenas, particularly the demands for sermons.

Not wanting to distract from their singular mission, Schenck said the group did not meet with the Houston pastors involved in the lawsuit prior to their meeting with Parker. He said they wanted to press the case for withdrawal without appearing to side with her political foes.

Although pleased the meetings proved successful, Welch was frustrated it took pressure from the mayor’s local political allies and out-of-towners to force her hand.

And Parker’s subpoena withdrawal came without an apology.

“They didn’t make any effort to reach out to the five who had been subpoenaed and say, “Oh, we’re sorry. We shouldn’t have done this,” he said on the radio show.

The mayor’s motivation for the subpoenas was clear.

“It is extremely important to me to protect our Equal Rights Ordinance,” she said in the press conference.

If the legal action against the city fails to produce a referendum vote on the ordinance, the city charter does not allow for a second petition. The law will go into effect.

In response to Parker’s announcement, Erik Stanley, an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom representing the five subpoenaed pastors said, “The mayor really had no choice but to withdraw these subpoenas, which should never have been served in the first place. The entire nation—voices from every point of the spectrum left to right—recognizes the city’s action as a gross abuse of power.”

Another group of pastors from across the nation arrived in Houston Tuesday as a show of solidarity with the five subpoenaed pastors. Some of those who traveled to Houston included William Owens Sr., a minister and founder of The Coalition of African American Pastors, Bishop George McKinney of St. Stephens Church of God in Christ in San Diego, Bishop Michael Bates of Calvary Christian Center in St. Louis, Cherilyn Eager of the American Leadership Fund, and Janet Boynes of Janet Boynes Ministries.

They did not seek a meeting with the mayor but held a press conference expressing their concern about the mayor’s overreaching authority and violations of religious liberties. Several of the African-American pastors said the administrations’ dismissal of the petition reminded them too much of voter rights suppression.

TEXAN Correspondent
Bonnie Pritchett
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