THE WOODLANDS, Texas — The governor of Texas has signed into law a bill that prevents the government from subpoenaing copies of sermons or questioning pastors about the content of their messages.
“Texas law now will be your strength and your sword and your shield,” Gov. Greg Abbott declared during a ceremony at Grace Church of the Woodlands. “You will be shielded by any effort by any other government official in any other part of the state of Texas from having subpoenas to try to pry into what you’re doing here in your churches.”
Senate Bill 24 was birthed following the 2014 controversy surrounding Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who had requested copies of sermons and other material from several area pastors as part of the discovery phase of a lawsuit over a petition seeking to repeal the city’s “bathroom bill.”
As previously reported, attorneys for Parker, an open lesbian, asked for “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to [the bathroom bill], the petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity…”
A motion was soon filed in turn to stop the city from scrutinizing the speech of area pastors, which caused Parker’s attorneys to alter their demands.
The clergy members who were the subject of the city’s discovery requests then sued Parker for “trampl[ing] on the rights of one million Houston citizens” through the subpoena requests.
Uproar over the matter spurred lawmakers to present legislation that would prevent such situations in the future.
“A governmental unit may not, in any civil action or other civil or administrative proceeding to which the governmental unit is a party, compel 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,” read Senate Bill 24, presented by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston.
While the bill was signed into law at the governor’s mansion on Friday, a special ceremony was also held at Grace Church on Sunday, with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also attending.
“We got in a situation we had never been in, didn’t want to be in,” Steve Riggle, the senior pastor, told the Houston Chronicle. “We got our sermons subpoenaed—which is a difficult position, because you’d sure like the mayor to read the sermons and to listen to them—but at the same time, we weren’t about to give them over because of a document that was given to us in subpoena form. We felt like that was wrong, so we said no.”
Patrick told those gathered that the bill didn’t arise from a Democratic or Republican issue, but “a right to keep men out of ladies’ rooms and to not allow boys and girls to shower together in the 10th grade.”
He further elaborated that the nation is “not split between Republicans and Democrats, but it’s split between those who believe in our Savior Jesus Christ and those who are lost like I was once and all of us were.”
A few residents protested Abbott and Patrick’s appearance at the church, claiming it violated the “separation of Church and State.”