HOUSTON (Christian Examiner) – A pre-rally press conference in Houston Nov. 2 again focused attention on what Christian leaders believe has been an egregious, and possibly illegal, attempt by Houston's Mayor Annise Parker to silence pastors and churches from voicing dissent about a sweeping human rights ordinance Houston's city council pushed through in May.
After the "iStandSunday" rally, Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council, said he believed "America is ready" and "Christians are ready for something to break. They see the mounting pressure, they see the growing attacks to their religious freedom, and they are not sure what to do."
Perkins told the Christian Examiner the rally, which drew more than 7,000 to Grace Community Church -- with thousands more joining in a live webcast -- had already exceeded expectations and could be a catalyst for much more.
"We hope this will be a spark that will challenge the church to stand for religious freedom, to stand for Jesus Christ, to be cultural change agents," Perkins said.
At a press conference before the rally, the church's founding pastor, Steve Riggle, gave an overview of the issue -- which began when Houston's city council passed a human rights ordinance by an 11-6 vote in May allowing for "special" rights for homosexuals and transgendered people.
A group of citizens petitioned for redress of the issue and in the process gathered 50,000 signatures (more than twice the 17,269 needed) to place the issue on the November ballot. The documents were validated by the city secretary, only to be thrown out by the city attorney for what he called "irregularities and problems."
Two pastors, a physician and a county politician filed a lawsuit challenging the annulment of the petitions and the city responded by issuing subpoenas to five Houston pastors -- not affiliated with the lawsuit. The demand for the pastors to turn over sermons and other notes about the mayor and the controversial ordinance created a national firestorm over the issue of religious freedom.
After receiving searing criticism from across the country, the mayor announced she was withdrawing the subpoenas but would continue to "defend" the "strong and wonderful" ordinance against "attack," although she said her action was not to satisfy her critics.
During the news conference, Riggle, one of the five Houston pastors named in the subpoena, said City Attorney David Feldman, "used his own subjective standard to disqualify signatures," in the first place and accused Feldman and Parker – an openly lesbian government official -- of conspiring to silence critics.
Riggle said when the city attorney and the mayor chose "to usurp the voting rights of the fourth largest city in the country ... everyone ought to be very concerned ... regardless of what side you are on."
"The citizens of Houston deserve an up or down vote on this issue and that's what we are asking for," continued Riggle. "That's what we have said to Mayor Parker. Let the people vote because it is our right to vote."
Riggle said the real issue all along has been the petitions.
"The subpoenas being lifted was a distraction from the real issue, the voting rights, something at the heart and soul of this," Riggle said.
More than a dozen speakers and local pastors waited a turn at the microphone for the 30-minute press conference.
Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas and host of Huckabee, said in the news conference the Houston situation is "one of the most outrageous overreaches of government" he has heard of.
"This is not about the issue of transgender rights, it is about the fundamental issue due all American citizens to have equal rights, and those rights include the right to vote," he said.
"And do we obey the law or do we obey our own passions?" Huckabee asked.
Rick Scarborough, president of Vision America, said the founders created the First Amendment for a reason and, "if there was ever a cause to unite the press and the preacher, then this is it."
"There is no greater freedom in America than an unfettered pulpit," Scarborough said, reminding those in the room that in case the "pulpit falters" writers put in a second clause, "a free press."
"It is the duty of the press to hold power accountable," Scarbrough said, noting he is surprised at how little he's seen from the mainstream press on this issue.
Noting Southern Baptists are in America because of religious liberty, Ronnie Floyd, president of the 16-million member Southern Baptist Convention, told reporters it is ironic "iStandSunday" occurred on the same day as International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.
"We need to understand the very reality of that which is going on here in Houston, Texas," Floyd said. "It is simply what I would call the tremors of persecution which [are] to come."
Floyd said before arriving in Houston he thought about a recent meeting with the family of Saeed Abedini, an American pastor being held in an Iranian prison, and it made him think about religious persecution across the world.
"It is time that we stand," Floyd said. "We stand with the truth of God in one hand, but with the love of God in the other, and that's how we stand."
Dave Welch, executive director of the Houston Pastors' Council, told the media the trial for the lawsuit is scheduled for January but he is confident with the support of pastors "across every denominational line," they will win.
"The rule of law has been violated, very simply and very clearly," Welch said. "We will persist until this lawsuit runs its course. We hope and pray and we believe in the court system that justice will prevail, that the rule of law will be restored, and this issue will go to the ballot."
Riggle announced Houstonians who support a ballot measure on the issue will gather in front of Houston's city hall Nov. 5 to deliver a message to the mayor.
"It's real simple, 'Mayor, let the people vote,'" Riggle said.