SAN DIEGO, October 10, 2014 — There is good news for five Christian pastors in Houston, Texas.
The pastors had been ordered by city officials to turn over any sermons in which they mentioned the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), the mayor, gender issues, or homosexuality. Some bad press and public outcry forced the city to reconsider. An amended subpoena now demands that pastors hand over “all speeches or presentations related to HERO.”
These pastors can praise God and heave a big sigh of relief. After all, this is supposed to be a victory for religious freedom.
What is the difference between a church speech and a sermon? Good question. There is no difference, but in our world of Orwellian Newspeak, the government poking its nose into speeches sounds less like an assault upon religious liberty and more like a simple limitation of free speech in general. Lest we forget, free speech is also guaranteed in the Constitution, right next to the line about freedom of religion.
The initial subpoenas were issued in response to a lawsuit filed against the city for rejecting signatures on a petition designed to put HERO to a public vote. HERO is better known by its nickname, the “Bathroom Bill.” Religious groups were bothered by a provision that allows transgendered men to use the ladies’ restroom because they self-identify as women and should be allowed to use facilities that correspond to their self image, not their plumbing.
According to the city attorney, certain pastors were subpoenaed because they vocally opposed HERO.
Attorney Erik Stanley of The Alliance Defending Freedom says, “The city of Houston still doesn’t get it … The subpoenas still ask for information that encompasses speeches made by the pastors and private communications with their church members …This tramples their First Amendment rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion … Any inquiry into what these pastors did in standing against the ordinance passed by the city of Houston and encouraging members to sign the petition is a violation of the First Amendment.”
Mayor Anisse Parker says regarding the revised subpoenas, “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 a pastor and their parishioners.”
That sounds great. There is only one problem: The city continues to intrude on matters of faith despite this latest mincing of words. Not only does the First Amendment guarantee religious expression unencumbered by the government, it also guarantees freedom of speech to all citizens, period — religious or otherwise.
While some consider the endorsement of a petition political, claiming it violates “separation of church and state,” they seem to forget that when the state tells the church what it can or cannot say, church and state are not staying particularly separated.
It was never the purpose of the First Amendment to forbid people to express concern over areas where their religious convictions are affected by secular law.
Our political system by its very nature deals with different ideas and implementations of ethics and morality. Ethics and morality are both also central to religion.
The idea that churches should back away from such subjects has less to do with the First Amendment and more to do with what is commonly called “the Johnson Amendment.” Passed by Congress in 1954, this law states that organizations exempt from federal taxes “may not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of — or in opposition to — any candidate for public office.”
Lyndon Johnson pushed this bill through. Coincidently, he was running for reelection in the Senate at the time and did not seem to like churches speaking against his policies.
Although technically the law only has to do with literal endorsements of candidates, the interpretation has been stretched to refer to any political speech at all. The matter gets subjective. Is opposition to genderless bathrooms or gay marriage political because it comments upon public policy, or religious because it deals with religious conviction? Who makes the distinction? Lawyers and judges?
Meanwhile, many believe that even speech endorsing a candidate or opposing a bill is protected under the First Amendment.
On October 5, pastors all over the country declared the day “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” challenging the Johnson Amendment and deliberately speaking out on politically related issues. The idea was to invite lawsuits and hopefully get the Johnson Amendment overthrown as unconstitutional.
That may or may not be the best tactic. But the Houston incident suggests that the constitutionality of such laws can no longer be ignored. There is something about the government ordering pastors to turn over sermons which leaves a creepy feeling deep in the pit of the stomach. Such orders do not belong in America, even when the word “speeches” is used instead, in the hopes that citizens will be too stupid to notice that there is no difference.
This is Bob Siegel, making the obvious, obvious.
Bob Siegel is a weekend radio talk show host on KCBQ and columnist. Details of his show can be found at www.bobsiegel.net.
Fox News and the Houston Chronicle contributed to the hard news portions of this article