Houston carries out 'witch hunt' on pastors opposing 'bathroom bill'

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Downtown Houston, Feb. 25, 2014. Credit: Katie Haugland via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

City officials in Houston have filed a subpoena against local pastors over a lawsuit regarding a bill that would do away with sex-assigned restrooms.

After citizens filed a lawsuit against the City of Houston for failing to accept petitions for the repeal of the controversial “bathroom bill” allowing members of the each sex to use each other’s restrooms, the city has subpoenaed sermons and internal church communications of local pastors, some of whom are not even a part of the lawsuit.

“City council members are supposed to be public servants, not ‘Big Brother’ overlords who will tolerate no dissent or challenge,” Alliance Defending Freedom senior legal counsel Erik Stanley said Oct. 13.

“In this case, they have embarked upon a witch-hunt, and we are asking the court to put a stop to it.”

The nonprofit legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, which advocates for the rights of people to freely practice their faith, has stepped in with a motion to stop the action.

The “bathroom bill” stirred controversy when the Houston City Council passed it in June. Voters responded with a petition demanding that the city either add the bill to a ballot, or repeal it.

Citizens submitted more than three times the number of valid signatures required by law, according to ADF, but the city attorney “defied the law and rejected the certification” of the petition, even though it had already been certified by the city secretary.

The result was a lawsuit, Woodfill v. Parker, filed by petition supporters against the City of Houston. In response, city officials subpoenaed some local pastors, requiring them to turn over internal communications with church members and any sermons mentioning the city’s actions in regards to the “bathroom bill,” city officials, or “gender identity.”

ADF says that city officials are upset over the voter lawsuit filed against the city, and are now illegitimately targeting pastors who are not involved in the case.

“The city’s subpoena of sermons and other pastoral communications is both needless and unprecedented,” said ADF litigation counsel Christiana Holcomb.

“The city council and its attorneys are engaging in an inquisition designed to stifle any critique of its actions. Political and social commentary is not a crime; it is protected by the First Amendment.”

In response, ADF filed a motion in the District Court of Harris County to put a stop to the subpoena, saying it is “overboard, unduly burdensome, harassing and vexatious” and that it will set a bad precedent for the expression of free speech and the voting process in the future.

“These requests, if allowed,” the brief says, “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.”

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