Revised subpoena to Houston pastors 'solves nothing' ADF says; FRC calls it a 'head-fake'

by Joni B. Hannigan |

HOUSTON (ChristianExaminer.com) – The day after U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) stood with Houston pastors in defiance of a subpoena by the City of Houston directing them to submit sermons and other forms of communication—a revised subpoena was issued Friday targeting pastor's "speeches" instead of sermons. 

In June, Houston's city council approved a controversial new non-discrimination ordinance—and the Houston Chronicle reported opponents were set to get the measure on the ballot with more than 50,000 signatures before the city tossed the petition in August over what they cited as irregularities.

(File Photo by REUTERS/Gary Cameron)U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) delivers his remarks at the morning plenary session of the Values Voter Summit in Washington Sept. 26, 2014.

Promoted as protecting transgender rights, the ordinance allows any person to use any public bathroom—biological men in women's restrooms and vice versa.

Five pastors, who were not a party to the action, were subpoenaed and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) attorneys filed a motion on behalf of the pastors to quash the order, calling this action nothing more than a "witch hunt."

Houston Mayor Annise Parker, the city's first openly lesbian mayor, has defended the city attorney's actions.

Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley, representing five area counselors involved in the case, said in a statement the change is inconsequential.

"The city of Houston still doesn't get it. It thinks that by changing nothing it its subpoenas other than to remove the word 'sermons' that is has solved the problem," Stanley said. "That solves nothing."

Stanley said the subpoenas should be withdrawn.

"The city must respect the First Amendment and abandon its illegitimate mission to invade the private communications of pastors for the purpose of strong-arming them into silence in a lawsuit that concerns nothing more than the authenticity of citizen petitions," Stanley said.

Cruz attended a prayer meeting and then a forum, attended by pastors, media and others, held at his request at Houston's First Baptist Church—his home church—Thursday, to speak in defense of religious liberty.

"[O]ur hearts are particularly broken that we are seeing it here in Houston, Texas. ... the city of Houston has no power—no legal authority to silence the church," he said. "Caesar has no jurisdiction over the pulpit, and when your subpoena one pastor, you subpoena every pastor."

Pastor Gregg Matte, in an exclusive interview with ChristianExaminer.com afterwards said he expects the subpoenas eventually to be withdrawn, but that this issue brings to the forefront what Americans believe about religious liberties.

"Are we willing to stand for our religious freedoms, or not?" Matt asked. "Pastors don't want to be preparing their sermons each week wondering if the government approves. We left England to get away from religious oppression. And when we are challenged like this, our religious liberty is at stake."

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott Oct. 15 sent a strongly worded letter to Houston City Attorney David Feldman telling him to withdraw the subpoenas.

"The people of Houston and their religious leaders must be absolutely secure in the knowledge that their religious affairs are beyond the reach of the government," Abbott wrote. "Nothing short of an immediate reversal by your office will provide that security."

Friday the Houston Chronicle reported Mayor Parker acknowledged the new subpoenas do not exclude sermons.

"We don't need to intrude on matters of faith to have equal rights in Houston, and it was never the intention of the city of Houston to intrude on any matters of faith or to get between a pastor and their parishioners," Parker said, according to the Chronicle. "We don't want their sermons; we want the instructions on the petition process."

Vowing to preach a sermon Sunday, Oct. 19, on religious liberty, Katy, Texas, pastor Randy White, shared his views in a strongly worded blog post Oct. 15.

"Never," the pastor of First Baptist Church of Katy wrote.

"We are recipients of a long heritage of boys whose blood was shed for the freedoms we have today. They have not died in vain. If the pulpit is not free, then freedom has been lost," White said.

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, responding to Friday's news about the change in language calling for pastor's "speeches" rather than "sermons," said in fact Mayor Parker has access to the sermons which are delivered in public already—but she wants private e-mails , texts and other communications in hopes to "scare off these churches."

"This head-fake might fool some, but the reality is, Mayor Parker didn't need a subpoena to access those sermons in the first place," Perkins said in a statement.