By Bob Allen
A Baptist minister who leads a national interfaith organization voiced concern about the subpoenaing of church sermons in a lawsuit challenging Houston’s non-discrimination ordinance.
Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, said in an Oct. 15 letter that while he supports equal rights the LGBT community, it should not come at the expense of religious liberty.
“Subpoenaing the sermons of certain clergy because of their political, or even offensive, content sends a dangerous message to all clergy in Houston and across the country,” said Gaddy, pastor for preaching and worship at Northminster Church in Monroe, La.
A decision by attorneys representing the city to subpoena the sermons of certain Houston clergy as evidence in a lawsuit challenging the ordinance backed by Houston’s openly gay mayor prompted an immediate outcry from conservative media outlets including Fox News.
“A government has no business using subpoena power to intimidate or bully the preaching and instruction of any church, any synagogue, any mosque, or any other place of worship,” said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “The pastors of Houston should tell the government that they will not trample over consciences, over the First Amendment and over God-given natural rights.”
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said he would refuse to turn over any sermon as a demand of a subpoena. “That is something I simply would not do,” Mohler said. “If there’s a legal price to be paid for it, I would pay that price. I would not render unto the government a sermon that was rendered unto God and God’s people.”
UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh said in a Washington Post commentary that he doesn’t think the First Amendment would bar the subpoenaing of an already delivered sermon if it was “sufficiently relevant to a case or an investigation,” but the Houston subpoena “seems vastly overbroad.”
“The fact that it seeks the contents of religious speeches does counsel in favor of making the subpoena as narrow as possible,” he said.
Gaddy, a former leader in both the Alliance of Baptists and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said he disagrees with the perspective of five pastors under scrutiny for using their pulpit to organize congregation members to defeat the ordinance. Still, he pledged to “work as hard to defend the freedom of speech from the pulpit for those with whom I disagree,” as he has for other controversies such as the New York Police Department’s monitoring of Islamic mosques.
“As long as a sermon is not inciting violence, the government has no business getting involved in the content of ministers’ sermons,” Gaddy said.
Mohler said the news would not be as surprising if it occurred in a secularized European country, but he found it hard to believe when hearing it happened in the heart of Texas.
“Make no mistake,” Mohler said. “Every single pastor in America, every single congregational leader, be it imam or rabbi or pastor or priest must know that when someone from the government comes to subpoena their sermons, they claim the power to subpoena yours as well.”
“Even if this case goes away because the mayor of Houston under the heat says that the subpoenas are no longer going to be in effect, the warning shot has been sent and the alarm has been sounded and woe unto the one who tries to forget this alarm,” Mohler said.