After defending subpoenas for sermons, Houston mayor backtracks

Yesterday, I wrote about Houston city attorneys issuing subpoenas to local pastors demanding they turn over all communications - including sermons - that dealt with the city's equal rights law. The subpoenas set off a firestorm across the country with numerous individuals and organizations calling for the subpeonas to be withdrawn and chastising city officials for issuing them in the first place.

Houston's three term lesbian Mayor Annise Parker at first, defending the subpoenas.

When that tweet created another sensation, she wrote "Always amazed at how little fact checking is done by folks who like to hit the retweet button."

Now there's a question how much "fact checking" was done by her own attorneys.

Texas Attorney General Bill Abbott,. who is the GOP candidate for governor, called upon Parker to withdraw the subpoenas:

Your office has demanded that four Houston pastors hand over to the city government many of their private papers, including their sermons. Whether you intend it to be so or not, your action is a direct assault on the religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment. 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. Nothing short of an immediate reversal by your office will provide that security. I call on you to withdraw the subpoenas without further delay.

I recognize that the subpoenas arise from litigation related to a petition to repeal an ordinance adopted by the city council. But the litigation discovery process is not a license for government officials to inquire into religious affairs. Nor is your office’s desire to vigorously support the ordinance any excuse for these subpoenas. No matter what public policy is at stake, government officials must exercise the utmost care when our work touches on religious matters. 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.

A statement released by the Mayor’s Office claims that the subpoenas were prepared by outside lawyers and that neither you nor Mayor Parker was aware of them before they were issued. Nevertheless, these lawyers acted in the City’s name, and you are responsible for their actions. You should immediately instruct your lawyers to withdraw the City’s subpoenas.

Yesterday, Parker finally began to backtrack. In addition to never reading the subpoenas, she claims she would never have issued ones drawn that broadly:

Ms. Parker's office initially doubled down in the face of such criticism but issued a statement late Wednesday saying the mayor "agrees with those who are concerned about the city legal department's subpoenas for pastors' sermons."

The statement says the city will "move to narrow the scope during an upcoming court hearing" and that city attorney David Feldman "says the focus should be only on communications related to the petitions to overturn the ordinance."

Joe La Rue, legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which has moved to quash the subpoenas, called the mayor's turnaround "wholly inadequate."

He noted that the city still appears to want some sermons and other documents related to the lawsuit over the petition drive, which the city rejected after saying too many of the signatures were invalid.

"These sermons, emails and texts have nothing to do with whether the coalition gathered enough signatures to qualify for the ballot," Mr. La Rue said.

The city's statement added that the subpoenas were issued by "pro bono attorneys helping the city prepare for the trial regarding the petition to repeal the new Houston Equal Rights Ordinance" and "Neither the mayor nor City Attorney David Feldman were aware the subpoenas had been issued until [Tuesday]."

It would be interesting to see, using Parker's standard of politics from the pulpit, if African American pastors used their sermons to advocate for the law. Perhaps plaintiffs would be interested in finding out of that were so.

I believe city officials when they say they didn't read the subpoenas. I think that indicts them further. Incompetence piled on top of tyranny does not shine a positive light on the administration of Annise Parker.


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