Three years ago, Christian pastors in Houston were in a pitched battle with their mayor, lesbian Annise Parker, who had forced her “open bathrooms” agenda through the city council. The pastors wanted the city’s residents to vote on the measure, and she was doing everything she could to prevent that.
WND broke the story when she went nuclear on the pastors, ordering the city’s legal staff to issue subpoenas for their sermons to find out what they had been telling their congregations about homosexuality, transgenderism and the issue of men using women’s bathrooms in city facilities.
The resulting nationwide public outrage, including a description of her actions by talk radio icon Rush Limbaugh as “vile,” caused her to back down almost immediately.
But that scenario won’t happen again because of the “sermon protection act,” which Texas Gov. Greg Abbot is scheduled to sign at a special event Sunday at Grace Church, in The Woodlands, Texas, north of Houston.
Rev. Dave Welch, the president of the Texas Pastor Council, said Abbott will be joined by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick for the ceremony during the 11 a.m. worship service.
Welch is one of the “Houston Five” whose sermons and other communications with their congregations were targeted by Parker.
The law, adopted by the state legislature as SB 24, prohibits a government entity from compelling “the production or disclosure of a written copy or audio or video recording of a sermon delivered by a religious leader during religious worship of a religious organization or compel the religious leader to testify regarding the sermon.”
The pastors’ group said the subpoenas issued against the pastors “shocked the nation and produced a massive national outcry against the infringement into the freedom of pulpits, and SB 24 was filed to clarify in state law what the courts have held to be clear First Amendment rights.”
“SB24 will give pastors critical protection from forced testimony and shield sermons from government subpoena power,” Patrick said of the project.
The bill was authored by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Sugar Land, to address the concerns raised by Parker’s attacks on the pastors.
WND reported the pastors said the mayor’s decision later to withdraw the subpoenas for the sermons wasn’t adequate.
The withdrawal, they said, “does nothing to mitigate their willingness to trash the Constitution for her own agenda and covering up her crime of stealing our right to vote.”
The state Supreme Court eventually had to step in and force Houston officials to allow the vote, and voters promptly tossed out Parker’s transgender agenda by a large margin.
The pastors had collected enough signatures on a petition to require the city to hold the vote, but city officials simply denied the validity of the signatures.
That was when the state’s highest court took action.
The dispute developed when the Houston council adopted a “nondiscrimination” plan supported by Parker over the objections of civic and city groups. The ordinances protected men who want to dress in women’s clothes and use women’s restroom and showers.
The pastors then gathered some 55,000 signatures in 30 days to require the city either to repeal the ordinance or put it up for a public vote. The city secretary counted about 19,000 signatures, affirming the threshold of 17,000 had been met.
She said she stopped counting then because the minimum had been surpassed.
But Parker told the city’s lawyers to determine most of the petition signatures were invalid.
Faced with overwhelming criticism, Parker said she was “directing the city legal department to withdraw the subpoenas issued to the five Houston pastors who delivered the petitions, the anti-HERO petitions, to the city of Houston and who indicated that they were responsible for the overall petition effort.”
Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley, working on behalf of the pastors at the time, said: “The mayor really had no choice but to withdraw these subpoenas, which should never have been served in the first place. The entire nation – voices from every point of the spectrum left to right – recognize the city’s action as a gross abuse of power. We are gratified that the First Amendment rights of the pastors have triumphed over government overreach and intimidation. The First Amendment protects the right of pastors to be free from government intimidation and coercion of this sort.”
He continued: “But the subpoenas were only one element of this disgraceful episode. The scandal began with another abuse of power when the city of Houston arbitrarily threw out the valid signatures of thousands of voters. The city did this all because it is bent on pushing through its deeply unpopular ordinance at any cost.”
One of the subpoenaed pastors was Khanh Huynh of the Vietnamese Baptist Church in Houston, who lived under the communist regime in Vietnam before participating in the great boatlift.
In an interview, he told WND he left Vietnam because of the repression and absence of freedom of religion, speech and association.
Describing the city’s move as an “intimidation tactic,” Huynh told WND that as a pastor and Christian, he must express perspectives on moral issues “without government oversight.”
“We voice our opinion. We’re standing for righteousness on a moral issue. The issue is that we have got to stand up for our belief,” he explained. “We will not back down.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, at the time called the subpoenas “unbefitting of Texans, and it’s un-American.”
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., joined him.
“I stand with the pastors and churches in Houston against government interference and harassment,” he said.