This is one of those situations that looks worse the more you look into it.
The city attorney, David Feldman, also sent very ominous signals. He seemed to agree that the language of the subpoenas had constituted an over-reach, but he had also defended the subpoenas as legitimate. On Tuesday he told reporters: “If someone is speaking from the pulpit and it’s political speech, then it’s not going to be protected.”
Thus speaketh the city attorney of Houston, Texas. You have been warned.
Houston’s mayor and city attorney stalwartly defend their right to demand that pastors surrender their pulpit messages.
On Friday, city officials announced that papers had been refiled to avoid use of the word “sermon.” But the change in no way removes the offense, nor does it even exempt sermons from the subpoena. As Mike Morris of the Houston Chronicle reported earlier today: “Though the subpoena’s new wording removes any mention of ‘sermons’—a reference that created a firestorm among Christian conservative groups and politicians, including Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who accused Parker of trying ‘to silence the church’—the mayor acknowledged the new subpoenas do not explicitly preclude sermons from being produced.”
Once again, you have been warned.
The debacle in Houston can indeed be a catalyst for “hysterical allegations.” No ministers are yet in jail. No pulpit has been silenced. No church doors have been bolted shut.
But the reality is hysterical enough. This is the kind of intimidation that would be expected somewhere in secular Europe or perhaps in the former Soviet Bloc. But we are talking here about Houston, Texas.
This is the kind of scandal that would lead most elected officials to backtrack like crazy, but Mayor Annise Parker is standing her ground, even as she tries to escape the heat by a mere change in the coercive language. What she is doing amounts to raw political intimidation.
At this point, it is five Houston pastors who are feeling the heat. But these subpoenas stand as a direct warning to every pastor, rabbi, minister, priest and imam in America. You or I could be next.
This is how religious liberty dies. Liberties die by a thousand cuts. An intimidating letter here, a subpoena there, a warning in yet another place. The message is simple and easily understood. Be quiet or risk trouble.
But the subpoenas in Houston now alert us all to the fact that trouble is now inescapable.
Will the people of Houston stand idly by as this thuggery is done in their own name? When the mayor of their city refers to sermons as “fair game”?