Religious liberty is under attack in (of all places) Texas as members of the clergy across the city of Houston, Texas, are being told to hand over to city government authorities sermons dealing with gay issues. Clergy, like all Americans, enjoy the protections of free speech and free exercise of religion, both of which are protected by the First Amendment. However, if Houston has its way, those freedoms may be at risk.

The city has issued subpoenas to a group of pastors among other activists demanding that they turn over all sermons where they talk about homosexuality, gender identity, or Annise Parker, the city’s first openly lesbian mayor. Failure to comply may lead ministers to be held in contempt of court.

There is controversial ordinance in Houston that would permit people questioning their gender to use public restrooms designated for what was once considered the opposite sex. Critics say this ordinance opens the door for sexual predators to dress like women and enter female public bathrooms, locker rooms, and shower facilities.  Clergy who signed onto a criticism of the restroom policy are the ones who’re facing the possibility of sermon seizure.

Whatever you think about sexual orientation issues, religious liberty is a right guaranteed to us all in the United States. That includes the right of the clergy to register dissent without having the city authorities seize their sermons. Citizens have a right to organize to fight for or against the policies they consider harmful or ill-conceived. The issue in Houston is the freedom of public dissention and the erosion of free speech.

Fox News reports:
“The city’s subpoena of sermons and other pastoral communications is both needless and unprecedented,” Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Christina Holcomb said in a statement. “The city council and its attorneys are engaging in an inquisition designed to stifle any critique of its actions.”

ADF, a nationally-known law firm specializing in religious liberty cases, is representing five Houston pastors. They filed a motion in Harris County court to stop the subpoenas arguing they are “overbroad, unduly burdensome, harassing, and vexatious.”

The Houston Chronicle reported opponents of the ordinance launched a petition drive that generated more than 50,000 signatures – far more than the 17,269 needed to put a referendum on the ballot.

However, the city threw out the petition in August over alleged irregularities.

After opponents of the bathroom bill filed a lawsuit the city’s attorneys responded by issuing the subpoenas against the pastors.

The pastors were not part of the lawsuit. However, they were part of a coalition of some 400 Houston-area churches that opposed the ordinance. The churches represent a number of faith groups – from Southern Baptist to non-denominational.

However, ADF attorney Stanley suspects the mayor wants to publicly shame the ministers. He said he anticipates they will hold up their sermons for public scrutiny. In other words – the city is rummaging for evidence to “out” the pastors as anti-gay bigots.

Among those slapped with a subpoena is Steve Riggle, the senior pastor of Grace Community Church. He was ordered to produce all speeches and sermons related to Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality and gender identity.

Clergy—and, indeed, citizens who are not religious leaders—should not be subjected to such shaming tactics. There is also the larger question of what the city government intends to do with its collection of homilies. We’ve seen at least one disturbing recent instance of the government abusing information by handing it over to activists.  

Government abusing its abilities to collect private information and using it to censor activity it doesn’t like is something we used not to associate with our country. If the effort to censor sermons in Houston  sounds vaguely familiar, it should. Remember the IRS scandal? The IRS targeted conservative organizations by applying unnecessary added scrutiny of their applications for tax exemption. The IRS even went after donors with audits. It’s a nasty tactic and exposes how partisan many government agents and agencies have become. But sermons? This is unprecedented.  

All Americans should be alarmed by what’s at stake in Houston. One of highest values is our ability to think independently and speak freely regardless of whether those opinions are commonly shared.