During the week of October 12, the City of Houston delivered legal demands to five pastors to turn over their communications with church members, including their sermons and speeches. This unlawful request stems out of efforts to repeal Houston’s “HERO” law (“Houston Equal Rights Ordinance”). The HERO law, pushed by Mayor Annise Parker, included many provisions antithetical to religious liberty, including a section that allows members of the opposite sex into each other’s restrooms.
Many churches opposed the measure, and when it was passed by the City Council, many churches participated in a petition drive to put HERO to a popular vote. Many Houston-area pastors—with every legal right to do so—likewise informed their congregations about this important, moral issue of the day. When the City mysteriously disqualified thousands of signatures on the petition, some citizens, faced with no democratic recourse, filed a lawsuit. In response, the City issued subpoenas to five pastors (who are not parties to the lawsuit)—a legal demand for information, the refusal of which is punishable under law. Those subpoenas demanded that these pastors turn over, among other things:
The order provoked a nationwide backlash, including a press conference where Liberty Institute’s President and CEO Kelly Shackelford demanded that Houston officials either withdraw the subpoena or resign from office.
“The City should withdraw their demands immediately, not ‘narrowing the scope’… they should withdraw their demands immediately. And any public official who does not act immediately to do so should resign, and is not fit to serve in any office in the State of Texas.”
— Kelly Shackelford, President and CEO of Liberty Institute
Why such a strong response? Consider these 4 reasons for fighting the “Battle of the Pulpit,” courtesy of the expert attorneys of Liberty Institute:
REASON #1: THIS IS A TREND—NOT AN ISOLATED INCIDENT
Sermons and clergy are now targets for intimidation and worse.
For example, Liberty Institute is defending Dr. Eric Walsh, a leading executive and expert on public health with a long track record of success—someone America needs in a time when public health crises are daily headlines. But Dr. Walsh was fired from his job because he is an ordained lay minister, and his sermons contained traditional beliefs held by millions of Christians, but not tolerated by the politically correct establishment.
Don’t miss that: Dr. Walsh was fired because an employer, the state of Georgia Department of Health, didn’t like his sermons. Sermons given by Dr. Walsh in his private capacity were requested, examined, and ultimately made grounds for his termination by his former employer. We are convinced this instance of religious discrimination is blatantly illegal, and we have filed legal action to get justice for Dr. Walsh.
But it’s clear that religious discriminators desire a scorched-earth campaign to secularize America and scrape unwilling houses of worship off the cultural map.
REASON #2: AMERICA WAS BUILT ON SERMONS AND IN PULPITS
The pilgrims fled England in part because a tyrannical king didn’t approve of their sermons. In the American Revolution, churches were burned because a tyrannical king didn’t approve of their sermons.
The Founders of America declared that all our rights, not just our religious rights, are “endowed by our Creator”—a higher power—and they are not to be violated, threatened, or abusively subpoenaed by government, a lower power.
The power to subpoena is the power to intimidate and harass. Ultimately it is the power to suppress, the power to silence, and the power to control. Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas said that silencing speech was, in his word, “totalitarianism,” and fundamentally un-American.
REASON #3: HISTORY WARNS AGAINST ATTACKS ON PULPITS
Nazi Germany is a picture of what happens when government seizes control of the pulpit. In 1933 the Third Reich intimidated the churches into giving it control of their organizational leadership. By 1934 the government issued the “Muzzling Order,” which regulated sermons and forbade speaking about certain controversial subjects.
Pastors who resisted the “Muzzling Order” were harassed. One of them, Martin Niemoller, had his study ransacked by eight Gestapo agents looking for incriminating material. In June 1937 Niemoller preached a sermon containing these words:
“No more are we ready to keep silent at man’s behest when God commands us to speak. For it is, and must remain, the case that we must obey God rather than man.”
He was arrested and sent to the Dachau concentration camp. The charge: “Abuse of Pulpit.”
REASON #4: THE LAW IS ON OUR SIDE
If we fight, we can win. Bullies like Mayor Parker and the Georgia Department of Health are swimming against the tide of the Constitution, statutory law, and legal precedent. With more than a 90% win rate, Liberty Institute knows this, having won numerous cases where churches and ministers were the targets of religious discriminators.
We know what many in government today tend to forget: pastors are never obliged to render to government that which the government cannot require.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Forward it to pastors, church leaders, and any person of faith you know. Courage to stand often starts with knowledge that we can stand.
Second, support religious liberty with a gift to Liberty Institute. As we said above, Liberty Institute is engaged in active legal cases to defend houses of worship, clergy, and ministries.
Third, pray. Pray for courage among people of faith, and God’s favor in these days of conflict.
About Liberty Institute
Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit www.LibertyInstitute.org.