Is Houston’s Lesbian Mayor Really Out to Get Conservative Preachers?

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Mayor Annise Parker of Houston speaks at a press conference on "Mayor's National Climate Change Action Agenda during the second day of the Clinton Global Initiative's 10th Annual Meeting at the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers on September 22, 2014 in New York City.
Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Houston Mayor Annise Parker is the most hated person on certain parts of the internet this Wednesday, as conservative websites accuse the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city of orchestrating a witch hunt that targets conservative pastors. The lesbians, the argument goes, are coming to get your religious freedom!

The issue centers around a subpoena sent to some pastors actively involved in collecting petition signatures against Houston's non-discrimination ordinance. The subpoena asked the religious leaders to turn over "all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession."

Pastors claim it's an overly broad fishing expedition. "The city council and its attorneys are engaging in an inquisition designed to stifle any critique of its actions," said a rep for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal firm. "Political and social commentary is not a crime; it is protected by the First Amendment."

The resulting headline on Breitbart? "Religious Liberty Under Attack as City of Houston Subpoenas Church Sermons."

At Fox News, Todd Starnes writes, "I predicted that the government would one day try to silence American pastors. I warned that under the guise of 'tolerance and diversity' elected officials would attempt to deconstruct religious liberty. Sadly, that day arrived sooner than even I expected."

But here's the thing: The upset pastors and their defenders may in fact be right about the subpoenas being overbroad. (The mayor agrees, if only they'd asked her.) But their complaints make it sound like the pastors are about to be tried for hate speech using the new law, which is far from the case.

Parker, who says she hadn't heard about the subpoenas until yesterday, doesn't care if pastors called her a dirty sinner or advocated for overturning the Equal Rights Ordinance. It turns out the subpoenas were sent by outside attorneys working for the city pro bono.

They were looking into what instructions pastors gave out to those collecting signatures for a referendum on the non-discrimination law. (What exactly the pastors said, and what the collectors knew about the rules, is one of the key issues in pending litigation around whether opponents of the law gathered enough signatures for a referendum.)

"There's no question, the wording was overly broad. But I also think there was some deliberate misinterpretation on the other side," Parker said at a press conference Wednesday. "The goal is to find out if there were specific instructions given on how the petitions should be accurately filled out. It's not about, 'What did you preach on last Sunday?'" 

To reiterate: The mayor's office is not interested in what they preached, or how the pastors feel about Parker or her sexual orientation. (Those things are all well protected under the First Amendment, as they should be.) All officials want to know is what kinds of instructions the pastors gave out with respect to collecting petition signatures, and whether what they said agrees with what they're arguing in court while appealing the referendum.

In an email to Intelligencer, the mayor's office confirmed that the city will narrow the scope of inquiry into the pastors' communications to more directly target HERO petitions. No word from the other side if they'll move to limit their hysterical allegations.