STUDENT GUEST COLUMNIST: What the Heck is Going on in Texas?

by Tre’ Goins-Phillips |

OPINION (Christian Examiner)—Even though they say everything is bigger in Texas, Annise Parker, Houston's first openly lesbian mayor, has decided it just is not big enough for anyone's opinion but her own, and, if you disagree, you could be held in contempt of court.

Earlier this month, Houston's City Hall subpoenaed five local Christian pastors, demanding they turn over any sermons pertaining to homosexuality or gender identity.

Tre' Goins-Phillips

The language has since been changed, no longer including the word "sermons," instead referring to them as "speeches." I guess an attack on sermons was too harsh for City Attorney David Feldman. Granted, they are in the Bible Belt.

Although it must have been a while since the attorney cracked open a dictionary, since the definition of a sermon is — you guessed it — a speech.

No matter what you call it, this Texas two-step is an attempt to portray pastors preaching the Bible as homophobic bigots slashing human rights. Parker is not the first to take this position, just among the first to go on the offensive.

Whether they are "sermons" or "speeches," nitpicking the topic list is a quick way to neuter the Church, leaving it culturally irrelevant.

Should this position become the law of the land, the rules of the game will be drastically changed, putting the Church on the defensive. This move stands in direct opposition to the freedoms outlined and solidified by the Constitution.

"This tramples on (the pastors') First Amendment rights to free speech and the exercise of religion," Erik Stanley, an attorney defending the pastors, said.

However, the mayor and her legal team have been very direct. From where they stand, pastoral instruction that critiques culture is out of bounds for the Church.

"If the five pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game," Parker tweeted.

Feldman seemed flabbergasted by the mere suggestion that First Amendment rights had been challenged.

"It's unfortunate that (the subpoenas have) been construed as some effort to infringe upon religious liberty," Feldman said when the pastors challenged the subpoenas.

The sacred has always ruffled the secular world's feathers. That tension is not new, nor immediately detrimental, as long as freedom to disagree remains intact.

The problem is Parker's latest offensive has told the religious that they just need to shut up or accept the consequences.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has warned Parker and Feldman that they might not want to do that.

"No matter what public policy is at stake, government officials must exercise the utmost care when our work touches on religious matters," Abbott wrote in a letter to Feldman. "If we err, it must be on the side of preserving the autonomy of religious institutions and the liberty of religious believers. Your aggressive and invasive subpoenas show no regard for the very serious First Amendment considerations at stake."

This is not the first rodeo pitting religion against government. Back in Bible times, Caesar did not care much for "speeches," either. But Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was quick to put things into perspective.

"Caesar has no jurisdiction over the pulpit," Cruz said at a rally supporting the Houston pastors. "When you subpoena one pastor, you subpoena every pastor."

Pastor Hernan Castano, one of the five subpoenaed leaders, believes this punch to the pulpit could set a new precedent for the United States.

"They want to intimidate the pastors of America and they want to use us five to send a message to ... anyone who would oppose their way of governing," Castano told Fox News columnist Todd Starnes in an interview. "This is very dangerous if we allow this to go on ... from Houston to the rest of the nation."

If this attack on religious freedom stretches past Texas and spreads into higher chambers of government, the United States could become a nation where wrong opinions are rewarded with court battles and prison sentences.

Tre' Goins-Phillips is the opinions editor of The Liberty Champion, the student newspaper of Liberty University. He is a senior journalism student and has written on a wide range of topics, spanning culture, politics, and religion—and has interviewed personalities like Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Christian author and journalist Jonathan Merritt.