A secular society is seeking to silence the pulpit.
The city of Houston passed an ordinance called the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) which is designed to protect transgenders by providing them with the ability to use the restroom consistent with their gender expression, regardless of their biological sex.
The Christian community in Houston has opposed this ordinance by contending that the ordinance violates the religious freedom of those who disagree with the intent of the ordinance. They believe that this ordinance will put women and children in danger. Religious leaders in Houston contend that children will be exposed to sexual predators who will use women’s public restrooms rather than the bathrooms set aside for their natural gender.
As a result of this opposition, a group of concerned citizens sued the city of Houston seeking a revocation of the ordinance. The group began a petition drive to collect enough signatures to repeal the ordinance.
According to a news report published in the Houston Chronicle, the group needed 17,269 signatures. They collected almost 50,000 signatures, but David Feldman, Houston City Attorney, invalidated most of the signatures by claiming that supporters of the petition had not gathered enough valid signatures to qualify the petition to be placed on the ballot.
As a result of the lawsuit, the city issued subpoenas requiring pastors to submit all sermons and communications related to the lawsuit. The pastors received subpoenas even though they were not involved in the lawsuit against the city. They were targeted only because they opposed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.
According to the news report published in the Houston Chronicle, the request was very broad:
City attorneys issued subpoenas last month as part of the case’s discovery phase, seeking, among other communications, “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 subpoenas mention Mayor Annise Parker because she was a strong supporter of the ordinance. This may indicate that city officials believe that any criticism of the mayor’s sexual preference or of the ordinance should not be included in sermons because such a criticism could violate a prohibition against churches being involved in political activities.
The pastors appealed to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization known for its role in defending same-sex marriage bans. The Alliance Defending Freedom filed a motion on Monday on behalf of the pastors seeking to quash the subpoenas.
I believe the government, local or national, should never dictate what pastors should or should not include in their sermons. The Bill of Rights included in the Constitution of the United States is very clear when it comes to the freedom of religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech.”
Neither Congress nor local government has the right to limit what pastors should preach, primarily when pastors preach on moral issues. Pastors who oppose homosexuality or the right of transgenders to use bathrooms that do not belong to their natural gender should have the right to speak against any ordinance that allows them to do so without fear of persecution or subpoenas by the local government.
This action by the Houston City Council is one more evidence that our secular society is becoming more hostile to the moral values for which the church stands. This is political intimidation. It is an attempt at silencing the pulpit. Using the power of the government to intimidate pastors and religious leaders in order to limit what they can preach is not only a violation of the First Amendment rights of pastors, but it is also a violation of the rights of free citizens who live in a free country.
When deciding what to preach or not to preach, pastors must boldly cry out with Peter and say: “We must obey God rather than men” (Act 5:29).
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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