One of the core reasons we have the First Amendment is to protect speech that is on the fringe of society. It’s also there to protect the individual’s right to speak without fear of intimidation from their own government.
The city of Houston, Texas and its’ openly gay mayor, Annise Parker, is violating the First Amendment rights of five pastors who have chosen to stand for their beliefs. Houston has devolved to this situation because of HERO – the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). The ordinance claimed there was a “public emergency requiring that this Ordinance be passed finally on the date of its introduction as requested in writing by the Mayor” and was approved by a majority vote of 11-6.
Wrapped into this ordinance is a public accommodations section, which essentially says that discrimination on the basis of gender in public accommodations (think bathrooms here) results “in the unjust exclusion of persons and a diminution of their dignity, respect, and status contrary to the public policy of the City and the Constitutional principles on which the United States was founded”. So, to boiled down to common, boorish English, the City of Houston believes mandating people pee in a bathroom consistent with their physical gender diminishes their dignity.
It is stunning to think that a person can’t use a public bathroom free from the possibility that a person of the opposite gender is using the same facility. At some point, this push for a discrimination-free society runs amuck and it appears that Houstonians have reached that point.
The Pastors (and others) oppose HERO mainly on the grounds that opposite-gendered people will be allowed to use bathrooms which could make it easier for sexual deviants to prey on girls and women in public restrooms. This is not an outrageous conclusion, though this opposing view believes it is. Remember Senator Larry Craig?
The unspoken, real issue on both sides is the role and acceptance of homosexuality in our culture. Evangelical Christians oppose the acceptance and increase of homosexuality in any form in American because they believe that it is sin and an abomination in the site of the Lord. They point out that the Bible is clear on this point. The GLBT community believes that homosexuality is good and right because it is an expression of who they are (orientation), not a result of a choice they have made, and besides, the Bible has been interpreted wrongly for thousands of years. In short, Evangelical Christians view this as a moral issue and gays (some of whom claim to be Evangelical Christians) view it as a civil rights issue. The cultural clash point is being played out in the public square. And since a majority of Americans no longer believe that homosexuality is sin, they have no reason to oppose it. So Evangelical Christians are losing to the GLBT lobbies in large numbers in the public square. The GLBT communities are so active and ardent that they are looking for ways to get into court so that the courts can rule in their favor (here too).
But the ordinance tips their hat to the religious community. It has some exclusions as well – including “religion” as a “protected characteristic”. In the ordinance, “Religion means all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief”. So, based on the ordinance itself, what one thinks and believes pertaining to matters of religion is a “protected characteristic” against which Houston cannot discriminate in the areas of housing, employment, public accommodations, and general discourse (“all persons living in, working in or visiting the City are entitled to be treated with equal dignity and respect and have the right to be free from discriminatory and unequal treatment”).
So, roughly 400 pastors (US Pastor Council) opposed portions of the ordinance. They have filed suit and a hearing is scheduled for January. Recently, a select few of these pastors, who are not parties to the lawsuit that has been brought against the city and its’ ordinance seeking suspension of the ordinance, were recently served with a subpoena demanding their “writings, drawings, graphs, charts, photographs, phonograph records, tape recordings, notes, diaries, calendars, checkbooks, books, papers, accounts, electronic or videotape recordings, any computer-generated or stored matter” that “constitute or contain matters relevant to the subject matter of this lawsuit” be turned over to the city attorneys. This includes, but is not limited to “emails, instant messages, text messages or other responsive data or information that exists in electronic or magnetic form…”
The subpoena went on to demand literally all communications and contact information concerning anyone involved in the petition. It demands, specifically, they show evidence for making certain public statements against the Mayor and her ordinance. These demands, of course, include sermons – whether written or oral.
The Mayor claims she didn’t know these subpoenas were going out and argued through her City Attorney Feldman that “if a pastor is speaking about political issues from the pulpit, it’s not protected [speech]”. Based on the uproar, the city revised the subpoenas and removed the word “sermon”, inserting the word “speech” or “speeches”. But a sermon is a speech. It is pure folly to think otherwise and this legal slight-of-hand won’t fool anyone – unless, of course, the city attorney is stipulating that a sermon is not a speech.
In essence, the City of Houston is on a witch-hunt designed to silence those who support the suspension and reversal of the ordinance – but more importantly, to silence those who oppose the gay lifestyle and their agenda. The cost to comply with the subpoena will be prohibitive for most pastors and that cost alone is a tactic of intimidation. Mind you, this isn’t their first attempt at intimidation. A petition to put the ordinance on the November ballot failed, presumably, because there weren’t enough signatures. In Texas, petitions submitted to the government are not public, yet the Houston GLBT Political Caucus
published the names of the signatures on the petition, violating Texas law. This didn’t seem to bother the Houston Mayor one bit.
In our opinion, these requests from the City Attorneys violates the Freedom of Speech clause of the First Amendment. And since what one thinks and believes is also a protected class within the ordinance itself, the “writings, drawings, graphs, charts, photographs, phonograph records, tape recordings, notes, diaries, calendars, checkbooks, books, papers, accounts, electronic or videotape recordings, any computer-generated or stored matter” are protected within the ordinance itself. The subpoena infringes on religious liberties guaranteed in the First Amendment and on the very ordinance it is intending to protect.
If, as a group of Evangelical Christians, we cannot ban together to fight this – if we’re that apathetic, then don’t be surprised when pastors are told what they can and cannot say in the pulpit – not just in Houston, but in Peoria as well. Frustratingly, the National Association of Evangelicals has no mention of this brewing controversy on their web site (at the time of this writing) as most other major evangelical denomination web sites mention nothing about this as well. I believe our collective silence is grounded in two foundations.
First, Evangelical Christians live out (in many respects) a division between the State and the Church by simply abandoning our rights and responsibilities within the local communities. Put bluntly, many Christians don’t vote and don’t get involved in politics (here, here (a good article on how Christians vote these days) and here).
Secondly, I believe (though I have no research to back this up) that conservative Evangelicals see the events as moving us toward the end times which the Bible clearly states are coming. So I suspect they pray, work hard, sometimes evangelize, but accept the coming persecution as being a fulfillment of that which is prophesied in the Bible. It’s somewhat of a fatalistic view grounded in the hope and belief that in the end, God will reign. In short, let’s get through the bad stuff so we can get to the good stuff.
My view: It’s wrong for us to simply sit back and hope that the City of Houston comes to its’ senses and leaves the pastors alone. Evangelical Christians should be involved in this issue – not just those within the city, but those who live in this county too.
My view: There is a lot of pain in the homosexual community that should not be denied or written off. I’m not unsympathetic to the hate they have endured – many times at the hands of Evangelical Christians, who have often confused hatred of sin with hatred for the sinner. The Evangelical community has sinned in this regard. Our sin has created real, lasting pain in those active in the GLBT lifestyles. But our sin doesn’t change God’s Word or His ability to heal. God is able to heal. Of this, I am fully convinced. But He heals only on His terms, not ours. We often forget this.
Christians can get involved in current events and stay faithful to their Christian beliefs. One organization in Minneapolis is helping Christians do this: the Minnesota Family Council. Many of the issues of our day are aberrations from God’s commands. As Christians get involved and offer reasonable, sound responses to the core questions of our day, we live out being salt and light as described in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. If you want to learn how to get involved in your community, organizations like MFC will help you. And at a minimum, you should vote whenever you can. Not just because it is your right, but because it is your Christian responsibility.