Based on disturbing events in Texas’ largest city, it’s clear that Ebola is a distant second in the "greatest threat" category.
That honor goes to political extremist Annise Parker, the mayor of Houston.
In a move that is anathema to religious liberty and freedom of speech, Houston, under Parker’s direction, has issued wide-ranging subpoenas to five pastors who attempted to overturn the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). An "anti-discrimination" law, HERO is also known as the "Bathroom Bill" because a provision allows transgender people to use either male or female restrooms, which the pastors opposed.
After HERO became law in May, the pastors helped gather more than 50,000 signatures to place the issue on a ballot referendum. Since only 17,000 signatures were necessary, it appeared Houstonians, not the mayor and city council, would ultimately decide the fate of the ordinance.
Not so fast.
Even though Houston’s city secretary certified the signatures, city Attorney David Feldman deemed 38,000 — yes, thirty-eight thousand — to be invalid, killing the referendum initiative. Not only do some legal experts contend Feldman acted without legal authority, but much of his reasoning is flawed (such as circulators having to be registered voters, a requirement that has been consistently invalidated by federal judges nationwide).
A lawsuit filed by several citizens challenging the city’s action led to subpoenas of massive scope, demanding privileged information from the pastors in 17 different categories. According to the Houston Press, subpoenaed information included:
Anything related to Parker, Feldman, HERO or any HERO drafts, and any copies or drafts for the petition to repeal the ordinance;
Anything related to "the topics of equal rights, civil rights, homosexuality, or gender identity;"
Any language related to rest room access or "any discussion about whether or how HERO does or does not impact rest room access;"
Communication with anyone at the religious rights group Alliance Defending Freedom, which has criticized the ordinance.
"All speeches, presentation, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by your or in your possession."
Hell, they might as well try to find out who killed JFK.
After heavy criticism, the mayor slightly revised the subpoenas, "removing" sermons, which means nothing since sermons are actually speeches, and Parker acknowledged some could still be fair game.
1.) None of the subpoenaed pastors are even party to the lawsuit against the city.
2.) Parker’s rationale is, "We want the instructions on the petition process." In other words, how the preachers instructed their congregants regarding the petition drive. The mayor claims that if preachers are politicking from the pulpit, sermons and other communications are fair game. Two problems:
First, this case is only supposed to be about whether there are enough valid signatures to warrant a referendum. The pastors’ viewpoints on the mayor and HERO are completely irrelevant.
Second, one needs to define "politicking." It’s true that a preacher advocating the election of a particular candidate from the pulpit may place the tax status of his church in jeopardy. But there is nothing illegal about a religious organization advocating positions on various issues. That has been a time-honored tradition in America and, no pun intended, thank God for that.
For example, the push to outlaw slavery was rooted in northern churches as pastors encouraged their flocks to support the abolitionist cause. Same goes for much of the impetus behind the Civil Rights Movement.
America’s freedoms are supposed to prevent religious persecution by government. The actions of Mayor Parker fly directly in the face of that.
3.) One has to ask, "Why?" Why is the mayor pushing these subpoenas? Does she have a hidden agenda? One can reasonably conclude that it may be an attempt to intimidate religious leaders — who face jail time for contempt of court if they don’t comply — into accepting the radical agenda of a political ideologue hell-bent on social engineering. In other words, flat-out political retribution.
If the mayor believes so strongly in the ordinance, she should do the honorable thing: Agree to the referendum. If it passes, great. If not, Parker should start doing what the people elected her to do: govern a world-class city, albeit one with many problems.
4.) This case has the possibility of setting groundbreaking legal precedent. If the mayor’s actions are upheld, America’s unique freedoms are in mortal danger. The door will be opened for more rights to be obliterated — and once that door is opened, it will never close.
This isn’t a Republican/Democrat, conservative/liberal issue, as its outcome will affect every American. Even supporters of the HERO ordinance should be extremely concerned, for anyone who thinks attacks on free speech and religious liberties are limited to one side of the political spectrum is dangerously misinformed.
Just as those on the Right would be wise to accept the right to burn the flag or protest military funerals, no matter how tasteless, the Left should be up in arms about this frontal assault on the liberties that allow us to express who we are and what we believe, without fear of government intrusion.
Perhaps more than any other state, Texas knows a thing or two about fighting oppressors and protecting rights. So here’s hoping they take the steer by the horns and throw the subpoenas right where they belong — in the trash.
Otherwise, start saying your prayers.
Chris Freind is an independent columnist and commentator. His print column appears every Wednesday. He can be reached at [email protected]
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Freind writes a weekly column for the Daily Times. Reach the author at [email protected] .