As part of a lawsuit surrounding transgender public bathrooms, the city of Houston is attempting to subpoena sermons and other documents from local pastors who are not named parties to the suit.
The lawsuit was filed by voters after the mayor and city attorney illegally rejected a public petition to repeal a law passed by the Houston City Council in June. The law allows members of either sex to use the other’s public restrooms, according to the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).
After the council passed the law, local citizens collected signatures demanding its repeal or placement on the ballot to allow voters to decide directly. The city secretary certified the signatures, which reportedly numbered more than three times what was required to trigger the repeal, but the city took no action.
As a result, supporters of the petition drive filed a lawsuit, Woodfill v. Parker.
In September, attorneys for the city subpoenaed Pastor Steve Riggle and other local pastors, demanding information about what they have preached or otherwise communicated with their congregations about the law, the petition drive, and related issues.
Attorneys with ADF filed a motion last week with the District Court of Harris County to stop the subpoenas, arguing that the sermons are constitutionally protected free speech and that the city is on a “witch-hunt.”
“City council members are supposed to be public servants, not ‘Big Brother’ overlords who will tolerate no dissent or challenge,” ADF senior legal counsel Erik Stanley said in a statement. “In this case, they have embarked upon a witch-hunt, and we are asking the court to put a stop to it.”
“The city council and its attorneys are engaging in an inquisition designed to stifle any critique of its actions,” ADF litigation counsel Christiana Holcomb added. “Political and social commentary is not a crime; it is protected by the First Amendment.”
A brief supporting the motion filed by the ADF calls the requests detailed in the subpoena irrelevant, burdensome on the pastors and calculated to discourage free speech and opposition to the city government.
“The message is clear: oppose the decisions of city government, and drown in unwarranted, burdensome discovery requests. These requests, if allowed, will have a chilling effect on future citizens who might consider circulating referendum petitions because they are dissatisfied with ordinances passed by the City Council. Not only will the Nonparty Pastors be harmed if these discovery requests are allowed, but the People will suffer as well. The referendum process will become toxic and the People will be deprived of an important check on city government provided them by the Charter,” the brief states.
“Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith,” according to the organization’s website.
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