Houston City Attorney Subpoenas Pastor Sermons About Equal Rights Ordinance

October 14th, 2014

Earlier this year, the Houston City Council enacted the Equal Rights Ordinance, that provides certain legal protections for LGBT people. In response to this ordinance, a repeal effort was launched, supported mainly by religious leaders in the Houston community. Though, ostensibly enough signatures were gathered, the City Attorney invalidated many of them, and found the referendum failed. Then, supporters of the referendum challenged that decision in state court. Houston then removed the case to federal court.

The Houston Chronicle┬áreports on the latest development in this saga–during discovery, the Houston City Attorney has subpoenaed sermons given discussing the equal rights ordinance.

City attorneys issued subpoenas last month during 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 were issued to several high-profile pastors and religious leaders who have been vocal in opposing the ordinance.

The article notes that the Alliance Defending Freedom is on the case, and moving to quash the subpoenas. I have not seen any of the papers, but I suspect they raised a Free Exercise challenge, arguing that these subpoenas intrude on church matters, and can be used to chill sermons.

This issue often comes up when Priests politic from the pulpit, and opponents argue that their tax-exempt status should be repealed. But this subpoena seems really broad, as it requests any sermons related to “homosexuality.” That is a topic priests often discuss, totally apart from the Equal Rights Ordinance. This subpoena seems like a really bad idea, and potentially unconstitutional.

Update: The Motion to Quash is here.

2. The discovery requests served on the Nonparty Pastors do not comport with these requirements of Texas law. They are not reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence, they are overly broad, irrelevant, and cause undue burden or harassment.

3. Additionally, the discovery requests demand materials that are protected by the First Amendment privilege governing discovery of nonpublic documents and communications relating to a political campaign and political strategy.

4. Also, the discovery requests demand materials that are protected by the deliberative-process privilege, the attorney-client privilege, and the work-product doctrine.