Houston officials face criticism after sermon subpoenas in Houston Equal Rights Ordinance fight

KTRK logo
Thursday, October 16, 2014
EMBED <>More Videos

In a letter to the Houston city attorney, the Texas attorney general called the action a 'direct assault' on the First Amendment

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- A day after it came to light that attorneys working for the city sent subpoenas to several pastors relating to their sermons, a firestorm of criticism has erupted. Responding for the first time publicly, Mayor Annise Parker and City Attorney Dave Feldman now say the wording of the subpoenas were too broad.

"It's not about what did you preached last Sunday, it should have been clarified, it will be clarified," said the Mayor.

Parker and Feldman attributed part of the initial uproar over the fact that neither actually saw the language of the subpoena until Tuesday. An outside law firm is working on this case pro bono for the city, and Feldman says he wasn't aware of the language in this specific subpoena.

"I looked at it, I felt it was overly broad, I would not have worded that way myself. It's unfortunate that it's been construed as some effort to infringe on religious liberty," said Feldman.

When opponents of the equal rights ordinance rolled their petitions into City Hall months ago, both sides knew a number of local church leaders helped gathered the thousands of signatures. The involvement of some local pastors were never in doubt. But repeal effort leader Jared Woodfill draws a clear distinction between civic involvement and the Sunday sermons.

"This is the first time I'm aware of where the City of Houston has used its resource and the subpoena power of the state to go in, and actually ask a pastor for their sermon and their notes, " said Woodfill, "This is a Mayor who will stop at nothing because she's made it very clear that this is about her and her personal agenda. So she's using our tax payer dollars, and the power of the government to harass the churches."

South Texas College of Law Professor Josh Blackman says the current wording of the subpoena is definitely problematic.

"If the subpoena is narrowed I think that would be much better, but to the extent they're still asking about sermons, that may have First Amendment problems depending on how broad it is," said Blackman.

Feldman says that when the city responds to the response of the subpoena, it will revise the wording and narrow the scope. Whether that will satisfy the critics remains to be seen. Woodfill says he didn't feel like anything said from the pulpit should be part of the lawsuit.

Blackman says in his opinion, the additional controversy on this issue could have been avoided, if the attorneys working for the city were more precise.

"I think if the city had taken the care about why they're going after these four or five preachers it would be much less blundersome. Now it seems the city didn't even know what they're requesting in the first place and dialing it back."

On Wednesday, Attorney General Greg Abbott issued a statement, calling on the city to withdraw its subpoena requests. In a letter to Feldman, Abbott wrote:

Related Topics