Religious Liberty in Houston

Contrary to news reports, religious liberty is alive and well in Houston. To underscore the importance of religion in this city (the most diverse in America), it is one of the protected statuses in Houston’s recently passed Equal Rights Ordinance.

The intro to the ordinance gives the meat of it: “It is the policy of the city that all of its residents and persons subject to its jurisdiction shall not be subject to discrimination based on an individual’s sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity or pregnancy.”

But there is a group of politically conservative pastors that has been fighting that ordinance since it was first proposed. They dub it, the “bathroom bill,” saying it is only about letting men use women’s restrooms. They are part of the Houston Area Pastor Council (you can read about some of their track record here).

When the city passed the ordinance, some of these pastors, together with political allies Jared Woodfill (former chairman of the Harris County Republican Party) and Steven Hotze, MD., led a petition drive to overturn the ordinance. The city rejected the petition, invalidating some of the signatures, and rejecting many pages where the person circulating the petition was not a valid signer, as the law requires (read the City Secretary’s report here). They then sued the city, arguing that the city attorney had no business reviewing the petition and drawing attention to the irregularities with some of those who circulated it.

In any lawsuit, both plaintiff and defendants have the right to subpoena relevant documents. The city’s attorneys subpoenaed lots of info from the plaintiffs that would shed light on their intent in the petition drive, and how they gathered signers and trained the people taking the petitions. They specifically mentioned sermons (though the mayor took that back).  This is when the organizers cried foul, saying it was a violation of the First Amendment, it was anti-Christian, it was intimidation–and all sorts of things like that. The Alliance Defending Freedom went national with it, igniting a firestorm of voices claiming that Houston’s lesbian mayor was trying to intimidate pastors who dared to speak against homosexuality.

This isn’t a religious freedom issue—it is simply what happens when you file a lawsuit. The rules of evidence protect “privileged communication” of the clergy (clearly defined in paragraph 505), and all the things that the city asked for from the pastors are excluded from the legal definition of privileged communication.

But some folks decided to make this a religious freedom crisis.  The city threw them a bone and said, “OK, we won’t ask for sermons.” That didn’t satisfy them–they don’t think pastors should have to hand over anything.

I disagree with Mayor Parker on many things, but I share her love of our diverse city, and I believe that the city has to protect all.

I worry about a small group of pastors who want to impose “God’s will” upon the city, as if this were 16th century Geneva or 17th century Salem.  I believe that separation of church and state is what makes this nation great–a vision championed by Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, and enshrined in our Constitution.  But some fundamentalists who have great influence in the Republican Party of Texas agree instead with David Barton and reject separation of church and state. They put that language into the platform of the party: “We pledge our influence toward a return to the original intent of the 1st Amendment and toward dispelling the myth of separation of church and state,” as well as “We urge amendment of the Internal Revenue Code to allow a religious organization to address issues without fear of losing its tax-exempt status.”

This isn’t about their freedom to speak–it’s about holding all to the same legal standard, and requiring those who sue to be open to discovery by the defendant. Makes me wonder what they want to hide–I’d be happy to give any of my sermons to the city, if they promise to read them.