A frustrated Mayor Annise Parker announced on Friday that attorneys working for the city narrowed subpoenas in the HERO lawsuit to help calm a feeding frenzy among conservative opponents of the measure who claimed the city was bullying pastors.
“The City of Houston has revised its subpoenas, not withdrawn its subpoenas, but revised its subpoenas in the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance repeal petition case,” Parker said during a 12-minute press conference on Friday. (Watch below)
“The disputed request has been narrowed to focus solely on communications related to HERO and the petition gathering process. There is no mention whatsoever of sermons or anybody's feeling about homosexuality. This was always the intent with the subpoenas. I hasten to say that lawyers on the other side knew what the intent was. They chose to spin this up into something it was not,” Parker said.
Parker, the city and HERO supporters have faced a barrage of criticism since Monday when the anti-gay Alliance Defending Freedom filed a motion to quash the subpoenas. The group called the subpoenas “overbroad” and “unduly burdensome.” HERO critics and anti-gay activists pounced, Fox News weighed in and Sen. Ted Cruz went apoplectic.
“The government of Houston, Texas demanded of the pastors, hand over your sermons to the government,” Cruz said Thursday. “The city of Houston has no power – no legal authority – to silence the church. Caesar has no jurisdiction over the pulpit, and when you subpoena one pastor, you subpoena every pastor.”
Jared Woodfill, the attorney who represents the five pastors in the lawsuit, called the subpoenas an attack on the First Amendment, according to KPRC.
“This is a mayor who has waged a full-scale war on the churches in Harris County. These pastors are standing up and saying enough is enough and we are not going to allow it to happen on our watch.”
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the city had “no business” issuing the subpoenas, according to the Baptist Press.
“I am simply stunned by the sheer audacity of this. The preaching of sermons in the pulpits of churches is of no concern to any government bureaucrat at all. The country settled, a long time ago, with a First Amendment that the government would not supervise, license, or bully religious institutions.”
The subpoenas targeted pastors suing the city over its decision in August to quash thousands of signatures in a petition drive to force a public vote on HERO. City Attorney David Feldman said then that a review found “too many irregularities” and ruled the petition invalid.
HERO opponents sued and, in preparation for a trial in January, the city subpoenaed five pastors heavily involved with the petition drive: Steve Riggle of megachurch Grace Community Church; Dave Welch, president of the Houston Area Pastor's Council; Hernan Castano and Magda Hermida of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; and Khan Huynh, pastor of a Vietnamese congregation.
Parker disputed the claim that the city was attempting to subpoena the sermons of the five pastors.
“[The subpoenas] were too broad, they were typical attorney language in a discovery motion,” Parker said Friday. “They were asking for everything but the kitchen sink. We are making sure exactly what we want to see.”
Parker also swatted down charges that she was bullying the pastors. She said the subpoenas were part of “the normal give and take” of lawsuits.
“I support the right of the clergy to say whatever they want to say even when I disagree with them. We don't need to intrude on matters of faith to have equal rights in Houston. And it was never the intention of the City of Houston to intrude on any matters of faith or to get between pastor and their parishioners,” Parker said.
“It is about proving that the petition gathering process organized by these pastors did not meet the requirement of the City Charter. And remember, they sued the city. This is part of our response,” she said.
“We don't want their sermons. We want the instructions on the petition process. That's always what we wanted. Again, they knew that's what we wanted,” Parker said in response to a reporter's question.
Feldman said he didn't review the subpoenas before they were issued and would have written them differently over “political sensitivity.” But he also criticized attorneys for HERO opponents for not informing the city of their objections before filing a motion to quash and alerting media outlets.
“They could have told us that they had an issue with the request and we would have agreed but they decided to make it a media circus,” Feldman said.
After a handful of questions from reporters attempting to link the subpoenas to sermons, Parker grew visibly frustrated.
“The lawsuit is not about whether they agreed with HERO or not. The lawsuit is about the petition process. We are very clear. We are not trying to intervene with a pastor or the messages they want to convey,” she said.
“The request is about the entire petition process. I don't know how many times i have to explain something. That's all,” the mayor said as she walked away.