Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

Earlier this week, Houston mayor Annise Parker and attorneys representing the city in a civil suit created outrage across the nation by issuing broad-reaching subpoenas for Houston pastors’ sermons and other communique discussing homosexuality, gender, Mayor Parker herself, or the anti-discrimination law that is the subject of the lawsuit. While not entirely unprecedented in concept, the far-reaching nature of the subpoenas received swift condemnation from many thinkers, not just religious conservatives.

Here’s some background. The Houston government recently enacted anti-discrimination law that would, among other things, prohibit businesses and business owners from restricting their restrooms to only correspondent genders. If a transgender person entered a Houston restaurant, for example, and the restaurant had only two restrooms, “Men” and “Women,” the transgender individual would be entitled by law to use whichever restroom corresponded with his/her felt gender identity.

In response, over 50,000 residents of Houston signed a petition to activate referendum and put the law to a vote. The mayor’s government, however, found creative ways to disqualify most of the signatures and thus evade a mandated referendum. The petitioners then filed a suit against the city.

The reason this background is important to understand is that the subpoenas issued by Annise Parker’s attorneys were delivered to many pastors who are not a party to the civil suit. In other words, the mayor’s legal team demanded the collection of sermons and ecclesiastical communiuqe from anyone they believed to be on a certain side of the issue. With no constitutional authority whatsoever, these civil attorneys sought a mandatory self-identification from dozens of Houston churches who had no role in the lawsuit against the city.

Late yesterday, Mayor Parker distanced herself from the subpoenas, saying she had no idea they were “so broad,” despite the fact that she took to Twitter personally on Tuesday to defend them. So, assuming that Mayor Parker is not, in fact, lying, she appears to have defended a legal action by her attorneys that she had not read.

This piece of extraordinary political bullying is troubling on many levels. It’s a clear-cut strong arm tactic by Mayor Annise Parker to intimidate the opposition to her anti-discrimination law. Secondly, Mayor Parker’s targeting of specifically Christian pastors and churches is nothing less than brazen religious bigotry. There appears to have been no corresponding summons to Muslim or Jewish churches, many of whom would conceivably also be in favor of the referendum. This fact severely undermines the idea that Parker’s attorneys were simply interested in gathering a case for the impending suit.

As Eugene Volokh of The Washington Post has noted, this action feels intended to create a culture of “surveillance” within Houston churches. Having no constitutional authority to request far-reaching material from pastors not named in the civil suit, Mayor Parker’s government has grossly trespassed on religious liberty. She and her government should be publicly rebuked.