As I mentioned in a previous post (which earned me the title of "Houston's 'Never' Pastor"), and in a YouTube sermon on Pulpit Freedom, I believe that the Mayor violated a fundamental right of freedom of speech and religion when she made her demands. Furthermore, these demands were nothing more than a bullying tactic for the purpose of intimidating America's pastors, who may now feel more threatened than ever before.
Barry Lynn, Executive Director of the leftist organization Americans United for Separation of Church and State, sent a warning to Pastors, saying that, "Houses of worship...are expressly prohibited from intervening in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office: they may not directly or indirectly intervene in partisan campaigns between candidates in any way." Lynn warned that the IRS "has the power to revoke your tax exemption" and "could also levy significant fines on an offending congregation or its leaders." The letter states that, "as long as you follow the rules...your house of worship is not in danger."
I think that it is this kind of fear-mongering that keeps Pastors silent on issues of great importance. Mayor Parker has enhanced this fear by her now-withdrawn demand that five pastors submit material to City Hall. I do not believe that a Pastor has to "follow the rules" related to his speech because "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The 14th Amendment makes these words applicable to the City of Houston. How can Barry Lynn, Mayor Parker, and others demand that Pastors "follow the rules" when those very rules are unconstitutional at their core?
The withdrawal of the unconstitutional demands is good, but the issue that brought about the demands is still unresolved. The citizens of Houston, along with freedom lovers everywhere, should still stand in unified opposition to the Mayor. While Mayor Parker has withdrawn the subpoena demands of these five local pastors (and rightly so since the demands were irrelevant to the lawsuit and a clear infringement on freedom of speech) Houston still has a major constitutional problem. The First Amendment contains not only the right to freedom of religion and freedom of speech, but also the right, " to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." This right is essential to our form of government, and has been trampled upon by Mayor Parker. The citizens have submitted over 50,000 signatures to the City of Houston, but those signatures were illegally denied by Mayor Parker, whose ideology trumped the constitutional rights of the citizens in the matter of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. Citizens should look past the withdrawal of the subpoenas and see the real issue that is still unresolved; the right to petition for redress of grievances. As a Pastor, I am fearful that Christians will hear the sound-byte that the Mayor has withdrawn subpoenas and will think that victory has been achieved. I hope, rather, that the citizens of any religion or political persuasion will recognize that fundamental constitutional rights cannot be denied without eventual harm to each of us.
In other words, until the citizens of Houston have their right to petition restored and have their voice heard at the ballot box, Mayor Parker is at odds with the Constitution of the United States of America. I would remind the Ms. Parker that her title is Mayor, not "her Highness."
They Mayors Change of Heart
On October 29 Mayor Parker issued a press release in which she directed her legal department to withdraw the subpoenas. Her motivation was, "Protecting HERO from being repealed," and her claim is that "the petition process used by the five pastors who identified themselves as the organizers of the effort did not meet the requirements of the City Charter." Such a claim will be evaluated in a court of law, and I have questions about why process would matter; what matters is whether or not there are 17,000 legitimate names on the petition. The Mayor was influenced by a breakfast meeting with several local pastors, including two Southern Baptist Pastors, Jim Herrington and Chris Seay. Herrington was Executive Director of the Union Baptist Association in Houston (an association of over 500 Southern Baptist Churches), for nine years, until starting Mission Houston, a social justice ministry. Herrington used his tax-exempt organization to openly endorse the HERO amendment. Chris Seay, Pastor of Ecclesia Church of Houston (a Southern Baptist Congregation), leads an emergent church in the Montrose area of Houston, and is the force behind the newest new-age version of the Bible, The Voice. While both of these pastors are far left of center for the majority of Southern Baptist pastors and congregants, their influence among the young and within the media should not be underestimated. When politicians like Parker need an "evangelical" pastor for name-dropping purposes, these are the men she turns to.
The Forgotten Right
The First Amendment's clause, " to petition the Government for a redress of grievances" may be the forgotten right. We often remind ourselves of freedom of speech, religion, and press. We must not forget the freedom to peaceably assemble and to petition the Government for a redress.
Can speech be free if it risks taxation?
(For Todd Starnes op-ed on this matter, including comments from me, click here.)
Randy White blogs at Randy White Ministries: Word for the World. He has been the Pastor of First Baptist Church of Katy since August, 2003. Dr. White has a passion for making disciples through Biblical preaching, world-wide missions, and personal evangelism.