HOUSTON — Houston’s openly lesbian mayor says that she did not know that attorneys for the city had requested copies of sermons from several area pastors in light of a lawsuit that was filed surrounding the city’s rejection of an initiative pertaining to a recently-passed “bathroom bill.”
As previously reported, Mayor Annise Parker had promoted an “Equal Rights Ordinance” earlier this year designed to quell any discrimination in America’s fourth largest city—including any discrimination on the basis of “gender identity.” Most opponents were especially concerned about the “Public Accommodations” section of the ordinance, which would allow men to use women’s restrooms, and vice versa, if they identity with the opposite sex.
“It shall be unlawful for any place of public accommodation or any employee or agent thereof to intentionally deny any person entry to any restroom, shower room, or similar facility if that facility is consistent with and appropriate to that person’s expression of gender identity,” the ordinance states.
The only stipulation, according to the ordinance, is that people who use the opposite sex’s facilities must dress, behave, and clothe themselves in a way that is “consistent with the gender designation of the facility the person attempt[s] to access.”
In June, Houston City Council passed the bill, resulting in the creation of an initiative signed by area residents who requested that either City Council repeal the ordinance or that it place the matter on the ballot for voters to decide. According to WND, over 55,000 signatures were submitted, and City Secretary Anna Russell confirmed in writing that 17,846 were acceptable. The minimum required by the city for a referendum is 17,269. Although Russell acknowledged that the submission was over nearly 600 votes about the minimum, Mayor Parker and the city attorney rejected it.
In August, those behind the initiative, which included area pastors, filed a lawsuit against the city over its rejection of the signatures and the referendum in general. In response, pro bono attorneys for the City of Houston subpoenaed several area pastors not a party to the lawsuit, and issued discovery requests seeking “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.”
National uproar was quickly generated about the matter, and now Parker is speaking out, saying that she did not know the attorneys issued the discovery requests and that she agrees the scope of the request was too broad.
“Mayor Parker agrees with those who are concerned about the city legal department’s subpoenas for pastor’s sermons,” City spokesperson Janice Evans told reporters this week. “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 (HERO) in January. Neither the mayor nor City Attorney David Feldman were aware the subpoenas had been issued until yesterday.”
“Both agree the original documents were overly broad,” she continued. “The city will move to narrow the scope during an upcoming court hearing. Feldman says the focus should be only on communications related to the HERO petition process.”
Initial reports about the matter stated that the purpose of obtaining copies of the sermons were to see if the subpoenaed pastors had ever spoken against the city or the ordinance, but officials claim that misinformation has been generated about the issue. They explain that attorneys had requested the sermons to see if pastors had provided instructions on properly completing the petitions, as the focus of the lawsuit is on the rejection of the initiative and many of the signatures that had been collected.
“If the five pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game,” Parker Tweeted on Wednesday before appearing at a press release about the matter. “Were instructions given on filling out anti-HERO petition?”
City Attorney David Feldman made similar statements to the Houston Chronicle.
“Feldman said the pastors made their sermons relevant to the case by using the pulpit to do political organizing,” the publication reported. “That included encouraging congregation members to sign petitions and help gather signatures for equal rights ordinance foes, who largely take issue with the rights extended to gay and transgender residents.”
But the legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) says that it is not just the requests for the sermons that concern them—it is the subpoenas themselves since they involve those who are not even a party to the lawsuit.
“The way to fix this is to withdraw the subpoenas entirely,” said ADF Litigation Counsel Christiana Holcomb. “Otherwise, the city’s and the mayor’s overtures are simply more window-dressing intended to shield them from public scrutiny.”