The city of Houston has subpoenaed sermons given by local pastors.
Yes, you read that correctly.
It’s a chilling turn of events for those of us who practice our faith and value the self-evident right to religious freedom recognized by the First Amendment.
The reason why this subpoena is being made is especially ominous: It targets high-profile pastors who opposed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which, among other things, gives people who identify as transgender the right to file a discrimination complaint if they’re barred from accessing a restroom. Houston’s mayor, Annise Parker, is the city’s first lesbian mayor.
Our friends at Alliance Defending Freedom are representing some of the pastors.
I’m curious to know what you think – how should the pastors respond to the city’s subpoena?
During the 1960 presidential election, John F. Kennedy traveled to Houston to assure Baptist ministers there that he was, in fact, committed to religious liberty and separation of church and state. The fear was that he, as a Roman Catholic, might not recognize those principles. He did. Turns out, the Houston ministers should’ve been less worried about the Vatican and more worried about, well, Houston.
Reports coming out of Houston today indicate that city attorneys have issued subpoenas to pastors who have been vocal in opposition to the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), a measure which deals with gender identity and sexuality in public accommodations. The subpoenas, issued to several pastors, seek “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.”
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. This country settled, a long time ago, with a First Amendment that the government would not supervise, license, or bully religious institutions. That right wasn’t handed out by the government, as a kind of temporary restraining order. It was recognition of a self-evident truth.
The churches, and pastors, of Houston ought to respond to this sort of government order with the same kind of defiance the Apostle Paul showed the magistrates in Philippi. After an earthquake, sent by God, upturned the prison where Paul and Silas were held, Luke tells us that the officials sent the police to tell Paul and Silas they could go. Paul replied, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned men who are Roman citizens and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly. No! Let them come themselves and take us out” (Acts 16:37).
A government has no business using subpoena power to intimidate or bully the preaching and instruction of any church, any synagogue, any mosque, or any other place of worship. The pastors of Houston should tell the government that they will not trample over consciences, over the First Amendment and over God-given natural rights.
The separation of church and state means that we will render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and we will. But the preaching of the church of God does not belong to Caesar, and we will not hand it over to him. Not now. Not ever.
John Kennedy taught us, rightly, to ask not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country. Our country deserves our allegiance. But no government can set itself up as our god.
Russell Moore is President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the moral concerns and public policy entity of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. Prior to his election in 2013, Moore served as provost and dean of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also taught as professor of theology and ethics. Moore is the author of several books including “Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families” and “Churches and Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ.” A native Mississippian, he and his wife Maria are the parents of five sons.