Tuesday news broke that the city of Houston is subpoenaing area pastors who opposed the city’s “bathroom ordinance.”
The city is being sued after it tossed out a petition that would have put repealing the ordinance up to a referendum. The petition garnered 50,000 signatures, about three times the number it needed, yet Houston tossed it citing “irregularities.”
That’s an awful lot of “irregularities.”
The city has refused to comment on the subpoenas, citing “ongoing litigation.”
But the subpoenas themselves appear to be entirely unnecessary, if the city really just wants to check on sermons. Not that the city has any business monitoring sermons in churches where no illegal activity has been alleged, and none has in this case.
Most churches of any size now post full videos of all of their services, including sermons, online for anyone to watch on demand. They maintain extensive archives. They conduct tape and mp3 ministries to help people who cannot attend services for any reason.
For instance, one of the subpoenaed churches is Grace Community Church of Houston, pastored by Rev. Steve Riggle. That church has an extensive website, here. As it’s a network of churches, the link to the Houston campus church is here. Right up top is a link to “Watch Online.” Click on that link, and you’ll be taken here. Over on the right is an archive of past sermons that anyone can watch on demand. Its Podcast link has an archive that goes all the way back to January 2013, more than a year before Houston passed its ordinance that the pastors opposed. No subpoena required.
Rev. Dave Welch was also subpoenaed by the city. He is pastor of Bear Creek Church in Houston. Bear Creek’s online sermon archive also goes all the way back to January 2013. Anyone can download and listen, at any time they desire, no subpoena required.
I didn’t go through the web sites of all the churches and groups that the city of Houston has subpoenaed. Just by going through the two above, it’s clear that the subpoenas are questionable as a matter of legal discovery. The city did not need subpoenas to get the information — sermons — that it claims it wants. The subpoena to Riggle even mentions electronic or videotape recordings, which are available free of charge, no subpoena required.
The subpoena goes farther than merely requesting sermons, by the way. It commands the pastors to appear, in person, at a city law office — Susman Godfrey, LLP. It also commands the reverends to produce internal church communications related to the sermons. That, in turn, might produce communications between the churches.
That the churches communicate with each other is no secret. Churches engage in interfaith activities with each other all the time, especially in large cities like Houston. In this case, these pastors had allied with each other for a cause, so they surely emailed and texted one another. As they have every right in this country to do.
These subpoenas appear to have several purposes outside the court case, then — to call out and intimidate the pastors, and to fish for information from within and among the church staffs. Complying with the subpoenas may also cost money and tie up church staff who will be tasked with gathering up the materials demanded, rather than attend to their churches’ ministries.