(Quin Hillyer, Liberty Headlines) Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Sunday will sign a bill protecting religious sermons from subpoenas – a key, state-level example of a national blowback against perceived threats to free religious expression.
The governor’s press release said the new law “will prevent Texas state and local governments from issuing a subpoena for religious sermons, and protects religious leaders from being compelled to testify regarding their sermons. Steve Riggle, whose sermons were subpoenaed by the city of Houston in 2014, is the Pastor at Grace Community Church and will be in attendance for the ceremony, in addition to other faith leaders affected by the Houston subpoenas.”
Riggle was one of five pastors whose sermons were subpoenaed in 2014, at the order of Houston’s then-mayor Annise Parker, who implied that the churches were “illegally” conducting politics (without the usual political or financial restrictions) under cover of religious expression, when the pastors were arguing against the forced establishment of co-ed bathrooms.
Specifically, the subpoena asked for “all speeches, presentations or sermons related to [an “equal rights ordinance” pertaining to bathrooms and homosexuality, among other things], the petition [concerning that ordinance], Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity.”
Mayor Parker is openly homosexual, and wanted to treat, as a criminal matter, sermons that were critical of her and her pro-gay ordinance.
The broader Texas issue is one that has been roiling the waters nationally for years. In 2014, the IRS sent a letter to the Justice Department demanding “high priority examination” of sermons and weekly church bulletins from 99 churches for allegedly illegal electioneering activities. The IRS in effect was supporting an atheist group’s long-running efforts to stifle traditionalist messages from the likes of Catholic priests and Billy Graham’s ministry.
Earlier this month, President Trump signed an executive order on religious liberty which, while of substantially less weight than traditionalist groups had expected and hoped, had as its most significant effect a provision curtailing burdensome enforcement of that Johnson Amendment.
Of course, when conservative groups react against what even progressives acknowledge is intrusive governmental overreach, those same progressives will in turn accuse the conservatives of over-reaction. A columnist at the liberal Texas Observer did just that back in February when Abbott’s bill was introduced – claiming that even though Mayor Parker had made a “major blunder” with subpoenas that were “far too broad,” Abbott’s bill in response is mere “grandstanding” because it is “unnecessarily overreaching and could cause problems of its own.”
Why? Because, according to columnist David Brockman, government indeed ought to be able to subpoena sermons under certain circumstances.
Brockman’s column was very much in the tone of original liberal coverage of Mayor Parker’s 2014 subpoenas, such as the Houston Press headline declaring, in belittling fashion, that conservatives were “freak[ing] out” over the issue.
Conservatives have noted, repeatedly, that the same strictures urged by the Left against unwanted sermons could have been used, to horrendous effect, to silence 1960s civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., who preached equal rights from church pulpits.
The liberal response, as exemplified by Brockman’s column, seems to be that only some sermons should be subject to subpoena – and, presumably, liberal sermons might magically be exempt.