Published June 13, 2017
AUSTIN—Texas Governor Greg Abbott has signed legislation that prohibits Texas government agencies from subpoenaing the sermons of religious leaders.
In a ceremony choreographed to highlight the bill’s benefactors, Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick signed the bill surrounded by Houston area clergy during the May 21 worship service at Grace Church, Woodlands, Texas.
Four of the five Houston pastors whose sermons became the target of a sweeping 2014 subpoena “fishing expedition” by City of Houston attorneys and then-Mayor Annise Parker joined the signing ceremony.
In messages emphasizing spiritual and political courage, Abbott and Patrick also spoke of their Christian faith before signing the legislation that gives pastors protection from future incursions by the government into Texas houses of worship.
“We’re grateful for the bill,” Steve Riggle, one of the subpoenaed pastors, told Abbott and Patrick. “Thank you for that backup. We never thought we’d need that but this is a crazy day. We never thought we’d have to define ‘men’ and ‘women’ either but here we are.”
Whether or not men who identified as women could use women’s public restrooms, locker rooms and showers—and vice versa-became the key issue during the 2014 fight to repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). A diverse contingent of Houston pastors had rallied their congregations, unsuccessfully, to fight passage of the ordinance that gave protected class status to gays, lesbians and transgender persons, including access to public restrooms according to gender identity, not biological sex.
Parker and then-City Attorney David Feldman thwarted a repeal effort and the pastors sued. During the pre-trial investigations, attorneys representing the city served the subpoenas which requested material in 17 categories including “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.”
The pastors refused to relinquish the sermons. The city balked and withdrew the subpoenas but not before the incident gained national attention as an apparent example of government overreach and an affront to First Amendment liberties.
Senate Bill 24, authored by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, protects clergy from government overreach in civil investigations. No governmental agency can force religious leaders to turn over their sermons or compel clergy to testify about their sermons according to the bill.
“Freedom of religion is the most sacred of our rights—it is what makes us America and is what gave our nation its start,” said Abbott in a statement following the signing. “Efforts to erode religious liberty are a threat to all liberty, and our religious leaders must be absolutely secure in the knowledge that religious freedom is beyond the reach of government. I am proud to sign this bill to shield our pastors’ sermons from subpoena and their right to speak freely about their faith.” (BP)
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