Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.
So yesterday I was contacted by folks here in Texas and also from other places in the country about a news story that claimed Houston city attorneys had subpoenaed some pastors’ sermons. As it turns out, the story is true.
I don’t have access to the lawsuit or the subpoena, so what follows is based on what we know at this point. I’ll update this post as things unfold.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Houston passed an equal rights ordinance. We are the only major city without one. This is actually the city’s first nondiscrimination bill protecting any classification, including race, sex, and religion.
2. While many churches supported the ordinance, some churches opposed it, and petitioned to have it revoked.
3. The city determined the petitioners did not have enough signatures.
4. These churches filed a lawsuit.
5. As part of pretrial discovery last month, pro bono attorneys for the city subpoenaed the parties connected with the effort to get the ballot initiative, including all speeches, presentations and sermons.
6. Yesterday the blogosphere exploded.
7. Today Mayor Anise Parker said the request was “overly broad.” She and City Attorney David Feldman claim to have not known the sermons were requested. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2014/10/15/houston-mayor-criticizes-city-lawyers-subpoenas-of-sermons/
8. From a legal standpoint, sermons are public speech. They are protected, but not privileged. That is, you are free to say most things, but once they are said in a public venue they are a matter of public record.
9. From a PR standpoint, this was an overstep, creating a problem that plays right into the petitioners’ hands.
10. From a gospel standpoint, I would say:
• What’s the big deal? Share your sermons. Don’t be afraid. Let your light shine. Don’t hide your sermons under a bushel basket. What is there to fear?
• If your church’s goal is to proclaim the Good News of the gospel to all nations, then let them have the sermons, let them be published on the web, on your blog, podcast them, put them in the radio, televise them, go tell it on the mountain. Shouldn’t we want lawyers and city officials pouring over our sermons?
October 15, 2014 at 11:22 pm
You are an educated man, a pastor, and an academic, yet you have completely missed the point. We live in a sovereign nation, governed by a Constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion, speech, and press, and yet we have a whole generation and class of Fascists, disdainful of freedoms contrary to their leftist agenda. These folks, like true Marxists, want a transformed socialist style country which silences any opposition and intimidates the rest. They seek to rule politically and culturally. It is no coincidence that these individuals get elected to public offices by concealing their true agenda, hoping that most people are too busy with their lives to notice. It is no coincidence they overwhelmingly register with the Democratic Party, a magnet for radicals. The Houston Mayor is a member of this Fascist, unAmerican club, and she has showed her true hand in the litigation she directed at this group of pastors in Texas. You, Bishop, must remember that this action is directed to your own sermons as well, because now the content of your words and the substance of your message are subject to being measured by the state….that is, unless you take this issue more seriously…..and resist.
October 16, 2014 at 8:09 am
When “church leaders” or anyone else, file suit in civil courts are they not entering into the arena of the STATE?
Anyone who engages the state at this level is subject to the rules of the game..
Subpoenas are Not inconsistent with Freedom of Speech. Clearly they have coexisted for several hundred years in this country….
Luke 14:28 would tell you : ” For Which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” 🙂
With all due respect my confessional friend, what am I missing here?
October 16, 2014 at 8:52 am
From what I’ve read the city might have said there were not enough signatures on the petitions when in fact Anna Russell, the city employee counting the signatures, stopped counting at 19,000 because only 17,000 were needed. When it was all said and done, there were 55,000 signatures on these petitions.
October 16, 2014 at 11:27 am
The only regulation a church violates when it engages in political organizing form the pulpit are IRS regulations related to the church’s tax exempt status. What business does a city attorney have investigation suspected IRS violations? The suspecting attorney should inform the IRS about the issue, and let the IRS investigate. What has happened is an attempt by the city to use its subpoena authority to harass and intimidate a church; a clear violation of the first amendment.
October 16, 2014 at 12:36 pm
The concluding questions strike me as pretty petty given the gravity of the situation. Of course, pastors want a wide reach with their sermons. I suspect several of the pastors served subpoenas do podcast sermons, have active websites, etc. One wonders if the city listened to those sermons before issuing the subpoenas if that is the case. That doesn’t mean the content of a sermon on an issue that is now both political and moral (not unlike abortion), should be fair game. The truth is that preaching the gospel holds inherent consequences. To say that the Gestapo sitting in congregations thought to be unsupportive of Naziism was no big deal because “wouldn’t it be great if you preach the gospel to all and not hide the light under a bushel” is really naive. Because for the resisting pastors, it was impossible to preach an abbreviated, Gestapo-approved sermon. For them, the Gospel had consequences like, “you are compelled as Christians to resist.” Even if they did address the issue from the pulpit, should legal action chill their speech? Is that really wise? And who decides what these pastors do is wrong? The city of Houston? God help us all! The line between political and moral action on an issue like this is razor thin, which pleases leftists because it will be easier to silence speech on moral issues, claiming it to be political speech from the pulpit. Such actions should be resisted early and often, and leftists of all people, should condemn what the city of Houston has done.
October 16, 2014 at 2:10 pm
October 16, 2014 at 2:20 pm
Reblogged this on Wonderings of aSacredRebel and commented:
A Great post by a wonderful bishop…
And yes do we not want the world to be pouring over our proclimations of the Word!
October 16, 2014 at 2:21 pm
Excuse me….Carl Johnson….but the church can indeed file suit when necessary. It is not to be avoided in some situations…..remember when Paul said, “I am a Roman.” He appealed to Caesar, as was his right as a Roman citizen. And the larger issue here is if we are willing as Christians to remain silent as the ungodly and wicked seek to install religious persecution?
October 16, 2014 at 2:47 pm
I’m sending the mayor my sermons, and I don’t even live in Houston, because the sexual immoral need to hear the gospel and repent. As Romans 1 says, God has given them over to their unnatural desires. What the “great post by the wonderful bishop” failed to mention is that those who did not comply with the order were told they would be held in contempt of court. Sounds kind of Nazi-like to me, the state taking over the church with threats of imprisonment. We need a Bonheoffer; we’ve got gutless quislings. Scripture remind us we need to obey God not men or immoral mayors.
October 16, 2014 at 2:48 pm
poring. BTW put the sermons online and send them the links. Invite them to your services to listen like the East German Stasi used to do, and offer to lend them a pocket tape recorder if they don’t have one.
October 16, 2014 at 2:50 pm
Wow. Nazis. Gestapo.
October 16, 2014 at 2:52 pm
Everyone, the First Amendment prohibits the making of any law that establishes a state religion, or impedes the free exercise of religion.
October 16, 2014 at 3:40 pm
Thank you, Bishop Mike, for your words here. As I understand it, t
he lawsuit was filed against the City of Houston, and the attorneys have the responsibility to collect evidence for the trial. This whole situation has been blown way out of proportion (in my opinion). UGH!!!
October 16, 2014 at 3:51 pm
Isn’t everyone who fails to produce a subpoenaed document/piece of evidence, or even their subpoenaed selves, held in contempt of court? The Church exists in the world and is therefore subject to its laws, just like the people who fill her pews.
October 16, 2014 at 4:05 pm
“she has showed her true hand in the litigation she directed at this group of pastors in Texas”
Actually, it was the pastors who filed the lawsuit against the city.
October 16, 2014 at 5:22 pm
Wayne, the city isn’t using subpoena authority to harass a church. The city is using subpoena authority in RESPONSE TO A LAWSUIT filed against it by a Christian group. The city is using subpoena authority in the due court of TRIAL PREPARATION AND DISCOVERY. All very ordinary, proper way of proceeding in court once a lawsuit is filed. The city is playing hard ball. Why shouldn’t they? They’ve been sued, and they are responding aggressively. The heart of this matter is the LAWSUIT filed against the city regarding the petitions against the ordinance, and the ordinance itself. Anything in connection with the petitions – how they were obtained, where they were organized, etc………….is fair game. The subpoenas for sermons went to pastors and churches where the Christian group allegedly organized and collected the petitions. The City of Houston has every right to obtain communications among the group and the people and places where the group organized the petitions. A judge will ultimately rule on any discovery motions, and whether or not the subpoenaed information is relevant to the upcoming trial. That is done in many court cases, so if it happens in this case it won’t be unusual.
October 16, 2014 at 5:32 pm
Mike Reinhart, great article! You really summarized the issues well! And I like your point, which is the point above all points – why be afraid to release sermons? Spread the Gospel far and wide……..if, of course, that’s what the sermons were about……..This all sounds to me like the Christian group and its supporters, which allegedly include the pastors and their churches, is running scared because they joined a game and found out a little late that the opposing team is playing aggressively. On a separate matter, today I told my teenage son that there are battles in life worth fighting for, that one should choose one’s battles carefully, and then once chosen, fight SMART. SMART includes having a good strategy and a strong army behind you. Sounds like the Christian group recently discovered the City of Houston is following my advice to my teen son!!
October 16, 2014 at 5:46 pm
Wow… way to start a political firestorm. Must be an election year! As I responded to a parishioner last week when he said “we just need to get back to being a Christian nation again!” — I said, “I think the bigger concern is separation of church and state — and the responsibility goes both ways!” — Thanks for your thoughts and comments Bishop.
October 16, 2014 at 6:23 pm
I’m sorry, where in the constitution does it say you are guaranteed to PRIVACY of religion or speech? As the OP notes, the sermon – while part of a religious transaction and a type of free speech – was still part of a public forum and therefore, public knowledge. Since the churches filed the initial lawsuit, and the city is just seeking to better understand the charges filed, how exactly is this subpoena unreasonable (other than perhaps, being too broad in it’s request)?
Secondarily, do you even understand Fascism? It typically considered a form of far-right politics, that is generally extremely socially conservative (ie, would not be passing equality ordinances). Specifically, fascism is based on the idea that superior people should be placed in power to dominate and control the inferior population; it is strictly opposed to universal egalitarianism. If you don’t believe me…. look it up!
Next time, you may want to do some further research before spewing your hate on the internet.
October 16, 2014 at 7:09 pm
I think Mayor Parker made a huge blunder. She says she “didn’t know” the extent of the requests. Of course she did. Pour over the sermons? Publish them? Well, OK. But for one thing, who is to say the sermons ARE the Word? Not everyone preaches the Word or the Gospel. Another problem I see is that some will attack and pick apart the sermons as many attack and pick apart the Bible, using phrases or words out of context and using them to suit their own purpose. In my church we call those “Bible bullets”….used to wound others. There is no simple solution to this. It was yet another blunder on the Mayor’s part and attempt to bully and control…somewhat akin to what she is doing with HFD…and an attempt to justify an outrageous amount of money she has spent on the City Attorney.
October 16, 2014 at 8:32 pm
Anybody who uses the terms “Fascists” and “Marxists” in adjacent sentences to refer to the same class of people needs to get a good dictionary, or preferably a history or political science book, and do some studying.
October 16, 2014 at 8:46 pm
>fascism is based on the idea that superior people should be placed in power to dominate and control the inferior population;
Sounds like a certain mayor of a city in Texas. Pushing an ordinance through and ignoring the will of the (stupid, backward) people.
October 16, 2014 at 8:58 pm
>It typically considered a form of far-right politics, that is generally extremely socially conservative
Hmmm. You may call it far right or far left– it is extreme and violent in order to force the benighted majority to comply– but it is secular and socialist, i.e. centralized planning and state control of the means of production. Don’t forget Hitler and Mussolini were national socialists (their bitterest enemies were international socialists/Bolsheviks), and the so-called “bourgeois” parties, which represented social conservatives, were the only coherent opposition to fascism, until they were destroyed. Fascism is revolutionary, i.e. the opposite of socially conservative (in favor of tradition and the status quo). Just want to get the facts straight so we don’t come to the wrong conclusions as we look at what is happening now.
October 17, 2014 at 12:26 am
“Fascists… leftist… Marxists…” You’re just a “Communist” and “godless” away from winning at FOX News bingo!
But seriously, that was a truly impressive rant. Has nothing whatsoever to do with either the gospel or citizenship in America, unfortunately, but the style points are through the roof.
October 17, 2014 at 7:23 am
Linda….you can’t let facts get in the way of excuses.
October 17, 2014 at 7:26 am
Yup, and the request for the sermons of these pastors in order to see if they are the ones seeking to overturn the city councils workings, could be, IMHO, a first step in a the possible curtailing of the exercise of religion by a government.
Let me ask a question-what if the shoe was on the other foot? What if a “conservative” mayor was seeking to seek out those who were against their ideas and so sought the sermons/writings of pastors who were more “liberal?”
October 17, 2014 at 12:11 pm
RevCraig, the City of Houston is not seeking anything from the pastors and churches EXCEPT what is required legally IN RESPONSE TO the lawsuit filed against the City by a Christian group affiliated with the pastors/churches. The subpoenas are responsive to a legal action filed against them; they are not affirmative or offensive (in terms of defense/offense) actions. The entire action was INITIATED by the Christian group when they filed legal action against the City of Houston regarding their petitions and the city’s ordinance. The City of Houston MUST follow the legal due course and prepare for the civil trial INITIATED by the Christian group. In all civil actions, the ones filing the action are the Plaintiffs (in this case the Christian group – think plaintiff = complainant) and the ones against whom the action is filed are the defendants (in this case the City of Houston, which now has to defend itself in court). The City of Houston’s issuance of subpoenas is the standard and ordinary response in the course of civil trial preparation. If the shoe was on the other foot, and Houston filed against the Christian group/pastors/churches, then the Christian group etc….would be issuing subpoenas in preparation for trial. And most importantly, if the sermons encouraged people to protest the ordinance by organizing petitions, and if that was biblically based or articulated as a Christian response to the ordinance, what are the pastors and churches afraid of? Speaking openly about something they feel is compelling? That’s what churches are supposed to do. If the fallout involves losing tax exempt status (which is an entirely separate matter from this current legal action), then so be it. Consequences should not determine the substance of pastors’ sermons. So the Christian groups/pastors and churches involved in this legal action should stand tall, respond to the subpoenas or as a judge to determine if their scope is relevant to the trial, and then let the chips fall where they may. The one thing I am NOT hearing in the comments made by those who support the legal action and oppose the subpoenas, is courage, and that’s what bothers me most of all. Act rightly and be courageous.
October 17, 2014 at 1:21 pm
You said, “Specifically, fascism is based on the idea that superior people should be placed in power to dominate and control the inferior population; it is strictly opposed to universal egalitarianism.” Fascism traditionally has been practiced by the far-right, true. But it is not exclusively a province of the far-right. It is rather a province of any party or group at a political extreme, whether far right or far left. In this case, the “progressives,” who are to the far left of their constituents, have adopted practices of the fascists to strong-arm their way to success.
And this issue is not about the sermons or the subpoena. The issue is that, as provided by law, voters in this city collected a sufficient number of signatures to bring this ordinance to a vote. They collected more than 50,000, which is way above the 17,000 required by law. The petition’s validity was verified by a city official. And then der Fuhrer Parker and her merry band of henchmen, without any legal foundation whatsoever, declared the petitions invalid simply because the petitions are challenging a pet ordinance of hers. This is not the first time the mayor has used underhanded tactics against people who go against her wishes.
It is the mayor and her people who are using illegal, strong-armed tactics. It is, in fact, the mayor — yes our liberal mayor — who is in fact acting like a fascist in that she has denied a group of her constituents the rights guaranteed to them under law — the right to use the ballot box to vote on whether or not to keep a controversial city ordinance.
October 17, 2014 at 1:28 pm
If that is indeed what the city is doing, then why were the subpoenas so broad, seeking information they did not need? The mayor herself admitted they were overly broad. The attorney who drew them up knew they were broad and likely to get struck down. Whenever a savvy attorney does something like that, he or she is not really doing it for what they can get. They are testing the waters to see what the court will let them get by with. I suspect the mayor allowed it because she was testing political waters, as well, to see how far she could push this and what her constituents would let her get by with.
October 17, 2014 at 1:34 pm
You’re right. The city is responding to this aggressively. By aggressively squelching a petition that was collected with a far greater number of signatures than requred, that was legally filed, and was approved by a city officer. To arbitrarily and erroneously decide that this petition is invalid simply because it was filed to bring a vote targeted against one of the mayor’s pet ordinances was an aggressive — and illegal — thing to do. Hence the lawsuit.
October 17, 2014 at 6:00 pm
Good lawyers are usually aggressive, and they often seek as much information as possible in order to prepare for their clients. That is the name of the game of law – each side does as much as possible in order to properly represent the clients it serves. This can play itself out by having the plaintiffs (Christian group who filed the lawsuit) request the judge assigned to the case to review the subpoenas for relevance. That is how these litigation disputes are resolved. Regarding the validity of the petitions, which goes to the heart of the matter and is the reason behind the Christian groups lawsuit against the city, it is not clear that all signatures were validly collected. From reading these articles it is alleged that a city official reviewed and approved the signatures. But there may be legitimate reasons why the city decided the signatures were not valid – perhaps the official who reviewed and approved did not have the authority to do so, perhaps the reviewer did not follow the usual protocol, etc….So now there is a lawsuit, opposing sides litigate, everything comes to light and a judge or trial jury makes a determination. Sounds like a very civil, practical way to resolve a dispute, particularly one that is igniting so many emotions in Houston.
October 17, 2014 at 6:22 pm
You say that Houston is the “only city without an equal rights amendment?”
Really? We were the only major city that “didn’t” allow men to go into a women’s restroom if they “felt” like they belonged there?
So you are saying that any other major city I go to, that is allowed?
Because THAT is what the petition was about.
Dismissing what was done does not change what happened. From the pushing it through in the council meetings, to the overreach to begin with, to the last minute invalidation of enough signatures to invalidate the petition after enough to pass it had ALREADY been certified.
If you don’t see a problem with that, then I have to say that the house founded by Luther, who was not afraid to SPEAK OUT, has lost its salt.
October 17, 2014 at 6:31 pm
For those claiming the actions of the mayor’s office are just part of normal discovery, the pastors subpoenaed WERE NOT part of the lawsuit, but they were some of those who spoke out against the ordinance
It is harrassment and an attempt to stifle free speech. There is no question about it.
October 17, 2014 at 6:37 pm
Only major city that doesn’t have a non-discrimination ordinance.
October 17, 2014 at 6:38 pm
They were pastors that gathered signatures.
October 17, 2014 at 7:23 pm
My question for opponents of the ordinance is this: what specifically do you oppose in the ordinance? It describes a discrimination free environment for many groups – sex, race, color, age, marital status, military status, RELIGION, disability, pregnancy, gender identity, sexual orientation. Which of those categories do not deserve anti discrimination protections? All of them? Or just the sexual related ones? Why? What is it about the sexual related ones that allows them to be the object of lawful discrimination? Do you really want discrimination against those with gender identity and sexual orientation issues to occur on a daily basis in Houston? With your active support? Under the banner of Christianity?
October 23, 2014 at 12:22 am
I know nothing about Houston politics (and I’m not asking) but as a fellow preacher of the Gospel I not only assume, but desire, that my sermons be public. That would seem to be the point! Plain speech. Let your “Yes be yes and your no be no.” How many times do we read in Scripture that the powers that be couldn’t resist the plain truth of the Word? Of course anybody can twist anything and takes one’s words out of context, but that is not to be feared if we speak with integriy and joy. Let’s not allow the powers that be – government or whomever – to get us all whipped up into a reactionary frenzy. We are called to lead – and laugh.
1 Why do the nations conspire,
and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and his anointed, saying,
3 ‘Let us burst their bonds asunder,
and cast their cords from us.’
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord has them in derision.
November 17, 2014 at 10:30 am
You just blew your own argument. Paul appealed as a citizen. Not as a Christian. “The larger issue is if we are willing as (citizens, not Christians) . . .” You might want to read up on Luther’s separation of the two kingdoms.