Houston City Hall rally protests subpoenaed church speeches

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014
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The protest is over what the city has subpoenaed

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- It's a story that's caused strong reactions across the country -- lawyers for the city of Houston serving subpoenas to get the sermons from local pastors.

It's created protests, like this one outside City Hall Tuesday afternoon. This latest group is not related to the high profile group of pastors who are fighting against the city's Equal Rights ordinance. The woman who organized Tuesday's gathering says she was moved by last week's debate over the sermons that she decided to organize a rally.

Last Friday, city officials narrowed the scope of their original subpoenas to remove the term "sermons," and just asked for communications related to the repeal of the ordinance. However, opponents said the change in language is not a change in tone. They say the city's lawyers are still basically asking for the same thing.

In May, the City Council passed the Equal Rights ordinance, which consolidates city bans on discrimination based on sex, race, age, religion and other categories and increases protections for gay and transgender residents. Parker, who is gay, and other supporters said the measure is about offering protections at the local level against all forms of discrimination in housing, employment and services provided by private businesses such as hotels and restaurants.

Religious institutions are exempt, but city attorneys recently subpoenaed the pastors, seeking all speeches, presentations or sermons related to the repeal petition.

Christian activists had sued after city officials ruled they didn't collect enough signatures to get the question on the ballot. The city secretary initially counted enough signatures, but then city attorney David Feldman ruled that more than half of the pages of the petition were invalid.

Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian religious rights legal organization that filed the motion to quash the subpoenas, said the city "still doesn't get it."

"It thinks that by changing nothing in its subpoenas other than to remove the word 'sermons' that it has solved the problem," Stanley said. "That solves nothing."

Subpoenas still demand 17 different categories of information that encompass speeches made by the pastors and private communications with their church members, he said.

"They must be rescinded entirely," Stanley said, contending the city needs to respect First Amendment religious freedoms.

Feldman said that the subpoenas were routine in the give-and-take between lawyers in a lawsuit and that the now-contentious matter could have been defused in negotiations involving attorneys for both sides.

"They decided to make it a media circus," he said.

The controversy has touched a nerve among religious conservatives around the country, already anxious about the rapid spread of gay rights and what it might mean for faith groups that object. Religious groups, including some that support civil rights protections for gays, have protested the subpoenas as a violation of religious freedom.

The Associated Press contributed to this report