HOUSTON (ChristianExaminer.com) – At the request of U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, Houston's First Baptist Church hosted a conference Oct. 16, to provide a forum for the national political leader to speak in defense of religious liberty.
Cruz is a member of Houston's First Baptist, and asked to speak to the controversial action by the City of Houston to serve five area pastors and demand they produce sermons and notes mentioning Houston Mayor Annise D. Parker, homosexuality and gender identity.
Parker is the first openly lesbian mayor of Houston and was supportive of an ordinance recently passed by the city council granting privileges to transgender individuals which included giving them access to public restrooms without regard to gender—biological men in women's restrooms and vice versa.
Dozens of Houston-area pastors and local and national media attended the press conference as did hundreds of religious liberty supporters.
The subpoenas followed the move by opponents of the ordinance to file a lawsuit against the city for throwing out petitions which had been collected to add a referendum to the November ballot asking Houstonians to vote on whether to repeal the ordinance. Houston City Attorney David Feldman explained the city's decision by saying the petitions with the 50,000 or so signatures—about three times the minimum needed—included "too many documents with irregularities and problems to overlook."
None of the five pastors is a party to the lawsuit against the city.
The press conference followed an already scheduled time of prayer and fellowship.
Gregg Matte, senior pastor of Houston's First Baptist, said about two and a half months ago God placed it on the hearts of a group of area pastors to come together and pray for each other and the city.
"Pastors and community leaders already were planning to gather for prayer," he said, adding, "not for this issue, because this issue [subpoenas] didn't exist two and a half months ago.
"We had no idea then this press conference would be called on the exact same day."
As he was preparing to host the prayer meeting, he said people began trying to reach him.
"I started getting text messages from friends asking if I had been subpoenaed and I didn't know what they were talking about," Matte said. That's when he began to read links and gained an understanding of what was taking place, that subpoenas had been served to five pastors.
"And when one pastor is subpoenaed, all pastors are subpoenaed," Matte told ChristianExaminer.com.
He said the group that already was planning to gather "asked the Lord what we should do" when he received a call from Cruz asking the church to host a press conference.
"The Senator really wanted to get behind this issue and make a statement about what it means when our religious freedoms and liberties are threatened," Matte said. "What's really neat—from a Christian perspective—is that we already had the prayer meeting scheduled."
"We had about fifty pastors of all denominations from the Houston area attend the prayer meeting beforehand and the press conference afterwards."
Matte said the outpouring of interest and support was truly overwhelming, and, he is hopeful city officials will receive a wake-up call from the community action expressed today in defense of religious liberties.
"I think the city will remove the subpoenas, as they should. This isn't what you do; this isn't how you walk forward as Americans.
"We need to honor our religious freedoms. Not squelch them," he added.
Although, in the short term, Matte expects to see the withdrawal of the subpoenas, he looks forward to a greater impact from the results of the highly publicized controversy.
"This really brings into the focus whether we as Americans really believe in our religious liberties, or not. That's what it comes down to: Are we willing to stand for our religious freedoms, or not?
"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."
Matte said in the end churches must be true to their purpose and emphasized that as the best possible result for those on both sides of the issue.
"As pastors, we really want everyone to know that, as the church, we love folks. We're not trying to start fights. We want to be able to walk away with Christ being honored," Matte said. "We will stand up for the things that are true in the Word of God and that are true in our nation as well—and everyone benefits."