Houston Pastor on Subpoenas for Sermons: It’s ‘Political Thuggery’

Penny Starr | October 17, 2014 | 5:08pm EDT
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Steve Riggle, pastor of Grace Community Church in Houston, Texas. (Photo: Fox News.)

(CNSNews.com) – One of five pastors who were subpoenaed by the City of Houston to gain access to their sermons and other documents said the move by Mayor Annise Parker was “political thuggery.”

Parker, the city’s first gay mayor, sought the materials after the City Council passed an ordinance to allow transgender people to use any public restroom and opponents sought, through petition, to introduce a ballot referendum on the issue.

“This is political thuggery,” Pastor Steve Riggle of Grace Community Church in Houston told CNSNews.com in a phone interview. “There is a fundamental right of the American people and that’s the right to self-govern.

“We are going to stand up and say no,” said Riggle, adding that the city sought all documentation and correspondence, including text messages, that refer to homosexuality, the mayor, or the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO.

“The mayor and the city attorney trampled on our First Amendment rights,” Riggle said. “How chilling is that?”

The government should not interfere with churches or the freedom of the people to worship in those churches, he said.

“Religious liberty should be sacred,” said Riggle, who has publicly called for the mayor to resign.

Annise Parker, mayor Houston, Texas. (AP)

Opponents of the city ordinance gathered three times the number of signatures needed to put a referendum on the ballot and the city secretary certified them. City Attorney David Feldman, however, said “irregularities” invalidated enough of them to end the effort.

But the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed a lawsuit, which the pastors are not party to, to stop the subpoenas.

“City council members are supposed to be public servants, not ‘Big Brother’ overlords who will tolerate no dissent or challenge,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley. “In this case, they have embarked upon a witch-hunt, and we are asking the court to put a stop to it.”

At a press conference at Houston’s First Baptist Church on Thursday, Oct. 16, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) joined Riggle and other local pastors to express their outrage over the city’s actions.

“This week, the government of Houston, Texas, sent a subpoena to silence prayers,” Cruz said. “The government of Houston, Texas demanded of the pastors, ‘Hand over your sermons to the government.’”

“Caesar has no jurisdiction over the pulpit, and when you subpoena one pastor, you subpoena every pastor,” Cruz said.

Holy Bible and cross. (AP)

“I'm proud to stand with the pastors,” Cruz said in a statement ahead of the press conference. “Religious liberty is the very first protection in the Bill of Rights, the foundation of all our liberties.”

The Family Research Council launched its own petition on behalf of the pastors and in a statement on Friday, FRC President Tony Perkins spoke about why this issue resonates with the American people far beyond the Texas border.

"Houston has become a rallying cry for freedom-loving Americans tired of seeing their laws and liberties casually tossed aside in a stampede,” Perkins said. “This is why more than 38,000 people have signed our petition in the last two days, standing with the Houston pastors and calling on Mayor Parker to immediately retract these unconstitutional and unconscionable demands.”

On Wednesday, the Houston Chronicle reported that the mayor and city attorney “appeared to back off a subpoena request for the sermons of certain ministers opposed to the city's equal rights ordinance, with Parker calling the request ‘overly broad.’”

But in a statement posted on its website, the ADF said that is not the case.

“The shame that the city of Houston has brought upon itself is real, but the claim that it has changed course is not,” said Christiana Holcomb, ADF litigation attorney. “The city so far has taken no concrete action to withdraw the subpoenas. “

“Furthermore, the subpoenas themselves are the problem – not just their request for pastors’ sermons,” Holcomb said. “The city is not off the hook from its illegitimate request for e-mails, text messages, and other communications in which these pastors, who are not even party to this lawsuit, may have disagreed with the mayor.”

“The way to fix this is to withdraw the subpoenas entirely,” Holcomb said. “Otherwise, the city’s and the mayor’s overtures are simply more window-dressing intended to shield them from public scrutiny,” Holcomb said.

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