October 17, 2014

Houston Mayor Narrows Subpoena – But Appears To Miss The Point

On one level, this is a victory.

Mayor Annise Parker on Friday followed through on her pledge to narrow the scope of subpoenas sent to local pastors who led opposition to the city's equal rights ordinance earlier this year.

Though the subpoena's new wording removes any mention of "sermons" — a reference that created a firestorm among Christian conservative groups and politicians, including Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who accused Parker of trying "to silence the church" — the mayor acknowledged the new subpoenas do not explicitly preclude sermons from being produced.

"We don't need to intrude on matters of faith to have equal rights in Houston, and it was never the intention of the city of Houston to intrude on any matters of faith or to get between a pastor and their parishioners," Parker said. "We don't want their sermons, we want the instructions on the petition process. That's always what we wanted and, again, they knew that's what we wanted because that's the subject of the lawsuit."

Opponents took advantage of the broad original language, Parker said, to deliberately misinterpret the city's intent and spur what City Attorney David Feldman called a "media circus."

Let’s look at that, shall we?

When Mayor Parker declares that those non-parties to the case who received subpoenas that demanded "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," how exactly were they to know that all you wanted was instructions on the petition process? After all, these non-parties were ordered to produce so much more than that. Under this subpoena, a sermon on one of the many biblical passages condemning homosexuality was required. Indeed, a PowerPoint presentation to a teen group on sexual morality that was approved by the pastor would also be subject to compulsory discovery. So, too, would be a speech delivered by the pastor in his personal capacity that endorsed or opposed the mayor’s reelection. There were other provisions of the subpoena requiring the production of emails, letters, and other communications on these same topics, meaning that pastoral communication with a member of the congregation might also be subject to disclosure. Frankly, the least offensive part of these overly broad subpoenas was the compulsory production of sermon texts and recordings, given that those are often downloadable from the church’s website.

Even now, the subpoenas are overly broad by the mayor’s own admission.

Though the subpoenas still cover speeches or presentations related to HERO, Parker stressed the filing was "not about HERO, it's about the petitions."

Sorry, Mayor Parker, but if it is only about the petitions, then you don’t need to gather materials that discuss the ordinance itself. That you are doing so indicates your intention to open churches and pastors up to harassment over their opposition to the ordinance – and that is simply intolerable. If you don’t go back and narrow the subpoena further, then it is clear that the original subpoena was not in error and your actions now are simply an effort at damage control after having been caught. And unfortunately, you are still lying to the people of Houston -- and the rest of the United States -- about what this has all been about.

On the other hand, you've managed to take a referendum that I thought would hurt Republican chances this fall if it appeared on the ballot and turn it into a GOTV tool that will bring conservatives and Republicans to the polls in droves.

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