If you follow any far-right websites, church-state separation sites, or probably LGBT sites, you have seen this story. It has been going on now for over two weeks, and it seems as though WND is finally down to only posting on this once a day instead of several. So, first the (non-exhaustive) links:
- “Sermon Fight in U.S. City: ‘Send the Witch a Bible'” —by Bob Unruh (October 16, 2014)
- “Fury Unleashed Over City’s Assault on Pastors” —by Bob Unruh (October 17, 2014)
- “Pastor Who Fought Communists Now Fighting … Houston” —by Bob Unruh (October 18, 2014)
- “Houston, We Have a 1st Amendment Problem!” —by Chuck Norris (October 19, 2014)
- “Listen Up, Pastors! Perfect Solution to Houston Nonsense” —email by Rev. Clair Ford (October 19, 2014)
- “Houston’s Lesbian Mayor Turns Tyrant” —by Jesse Lee Peterson (October 19, 2014)
- “‘Houston 5’ Pastor: Sermon Fight ‘Hit Nerve’ for America” —by Bob Unruh (October 20, 2014)
- “‘Vile, Filthy’: Rush Rips Houston Mayor’s Sermon Grab” —by Joe Kovacs (October 22, 2014)
- “Civil-Rights Official Chastises Houston Mayor” —by Bob Unruh (October 23, 2014)
- “Houston Story Changes in Fight with Pastors” —by Bob Unruh (October 23, 2014)
- “The Criminalization of Christianity Is Here” —by Joseph Farah (October 26, 2014)
- “Pastor Speaks Out on Houston Mayor: ‘You Will See More of This'” —by Leo Hohmann (October 26, 2014)
- “Lesbian Mayor: Daughter Denied License Due to ‘2 Moms'” —by Bob Unruh (October 27, 2014)
- “‘Gay’ Zealots Bare Their Fangs” —by Joseph Farah (October 27, 2014)
If you were to focus on the WND headlines and have the vaguest idea of what this is about, you would conclude the following: (1) The mayor of Houston is a lesbian (a really “big” lesbian, based on the repeat of this adjective in the headlines), (2) she has demanded that area pastors turn in all copies of their sermons, (3) in clear violation of church-state separation, and (4) that pastors are protesting.
So, what’s really going on?
The story started many months ago, when the mayor of Houston, Annise Parker (who does happen to be a lesbian), championed an anti-discrimination ordinance (HERO: Houston Equal Rights Ordinance) that protects against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Texas is pretty conservative, so it was opposed, including to the next ballot. But, the petitioners failed to get enough signatures to get it on the ballot for repeal. Darn.
The petitioners are claiming that the City Attorney, David Feldman, wrongly decided they hadn’t gathered enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot, and they will have their day in court in January 2015.
That’s the first part. The second part of this is to remember that America has this thing called “separation of church and state.” I know that many conservatives don’t like this, and don’t think it applies to the church affecting the state – just vice versa – but case law would seem to go against that. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has a rule that enforces this church-state separation, in that the IRS won’t tax a church if it stays out of state business. Put more bluntly and specifically, the 1954 Johnson Amendment bans tax-exempt 501(C) organizations from intervening in political campaigns.
Officials in the city of Houston had a feeling that this was not followed by local pastors, that the local pastors advocated for the repeal of the measure. Which would put it at odds with church-state separation; or, at the very least, it would put them at odds with their tax-exempt status.
And so, city attorneys took the rare measure of subpoenaing, as part of discovery because of the suit the petitioners filed against the city (as in, they brought this on themselves), “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.” They “were issued to several high-profile pastors and religious leaders who have been vocal in opposing the ordinance. The Alliance Defending Freedom has filed a motion on behalf of the pastors seeking to quash the subpoenas.” (source)
Perhaps most importantly, Mayor Parker did not even know about – let alone initiate – the subpoenas. In fact, she criticized the city attorneys after she found out about it. Somehow WND seems to have failed to notice this very salient point.
At this point, we can reject the second conclusion from the WND headlines. And if it wasn’t obvious, the first one is a non sequitur because someone’s sexual orientation has nothing to do with any of this in terms of its legality. Though, Pat Robertson would beg to differ.
The third point, the violation of church-state separation, is a more interesting question. Before reading anyone else’s commentary on it, I admit that this was an eye-raiser for me because it seems like it’s treading on thin ice. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that this was okay. The state isn’t telling the church what to do. It isn’t asking for anything that’s private. It’s asking for something that anyone who went to the sermons – which are open to anyone – could have learned.
That said, people with far more legal expertise than I do think that while this isn’t necessarily unconstitutional, it is over-reach: “[The legality] presupposes that the information in the subpoenaed sermons really is substantially relevant to a case or an investigation. I don’t quite see how “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” would be relevant to the litigation about the validity of the referendum petitions.” (source)
And, since the severe backlash, including a letter from the Texas Attorney General, the city attorneys have backed down.
Meanwhile, on the right, there’s some hypocrisy going on. The American Family Association (AFA), a far-right Christian group who is likewise outraged over this, has long held that the First Amendment only applies to forbidding Congress from interfering with the church (and only the Christian churches), nothing more. Their entire case, in this case, rests on a local Mayor (which is inaccurate – it’s the city attorneys). But, AFA’s spokesmouth has stated this:
First, the amendment applies only to Congress. “Congress shall make no law…” No other entity is restrained by the First Amendment. Since the amendment applies only to Congress, it is legally, historically and constitutionally impossible for a state, a county commission, a city council, a school board, a school principal, a school teacher or a student to violate the First Amendment. This is for one simple reason: none of them is Congress. Violating the First Amendment is something only Congress can do.
This has also given many people and groups the opportunity for (un-)righteous indignation. Such as Ted Cruz, who agrees with fear-mongers that pastors may soon be “hauled off to jail for a hate crime” for just preaching what they want to preach. Others, like Glen Beck, say that this is the most dangerous thing they have ever seen.
Overall, WND posted a lot about this. Most of it came from their chief in anti-gay writing, Bob Unruh, though it also made two of founder and CEO Joseph Farah’s columns. Not to mention one by Chuck Norris and the main tabloid rumor reporter, Joe Kovacs. It has spawned very roughly 4700 comments on WND across the posts that I clicked on and linked to above.
Meanwhile, it gave the über-right a rallying cry of another (made-up) example of (false) Christian Persecution. Because laws are made for everyone else, and hyperbole is okay in an election year.
That in mind, I don’t expect to write about this anymore, baring a major new development.