By Bob Allen
Moderate and conservative Baptists set aside differences in an Oct. 15 letter opposing subpoenas ordering five Houston pastors to turn over sermons as evidence in a lawsuit seeking repeal of the city’s non-discrimination ordinance.
Top leaders of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist General Convention of Texas and Southern Baptists of Texas Convention signed a letter to city officials terming the issuing of subpoenas of sermons as “improper and unwarranted” and asking Mayor Annise Parker to acknowledge it was a mistake and ensure that it does not happen again.
According to a press release, the coalition was organized by Russell Moore, head of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, working with Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.
It marked a rare show of unity among diverse groups typically defined by their differences instead of common beliefs.
Formed in 1946, the Baptist Joint Committee is an educational and advocacy organization composed of representatives of 15 national, state and regional Baptist bodies including the Decatur, Ga.,-based CBF.
The ERLC, Southern Baptists’ official voice for moral and public policy concerns, added religious liberty to its portfolio in 1990. The following year the SBC ceased all funding for the BJC, citing differences including prayer in public schools and the BJC’s unwillingness to engage moral issues like abortion.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship organized in 1991, after moderates weary of a decade of Southern Baptist infighting known as the “conservative resurgence,” decided to disengage from denominational politics and create alternative channels for mission, ministry and theological education.
Today the Fellowship claims about 1,800 affiliated churches. Many still retain some connection to the 46,000-church SBC, America’s second-largest faith group behind Roman Catholics.
Individuals signing the letter, in addition to Moore and Walker, include Frank Page, president of the SBC Executive Committee, and CBF Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter.
Both David Hardage, executive director of the 4,200-church BGCT, still the largest statewide SBC affiliate, and Jim Richards of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, an organization of 2,200 conservative churches that pulled out of the BGCT in 1998, added their signatures. So did the president of both groups.
Other names include Robert Sloan, president of Houston Baptist University, and Gus Reyes, director of the BGCT Christian Life Commission.
The clergy subpoenas cast a national spotlight on a long-running controversy over the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance — referred to as HERO — amended in May and signed by Parker, Houston’s first openly-gay mayor serving a third term since her election in 2009.
The ordinance, which does not apply to churches, bans discrimination “based on an individual’s sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity or pregnancy.”
The ordinance defines gender identity as “an individual’s innate identification, appearance, expression or behavior as either male or female, although the same may not correspond to the individual’s body or gender as assigned at birth.”
A coalition of clergy and others organized a campaign called “No Unequal Rights” to petition the city council to either repeal the ordinance or put it on the ballot and let the voters decide.
Promotional material contended that transgender protection opened women’s restrooms to men, creating “unequal rights for a tiny elite group of people by taking away rights of safety and privacy for the vast majority of our women and children.” Opponents nicknamed the ordinance the “bathroom bill.”
The petition drive secured 55,000 signatures, but after review the mayor and city attorney announced that just 15,249 were properly certified as eligible to vote, short of a formula in the city charter that required at least 17,269 signatures to get on the ballot.
Four taxpayers opposed to the ordinance filed a lawsuit in Harris County District Court claiming it was the mayor who violated the charter and that the referendum petition is valid. As part of discovery, lawyers for the city obtained subpoenas requiring parties to turn over communications related to the anti-HERO campaign.
Subpoenas were also delivered to five pastors who are not a party to the litigation but were involved in the petition campaign. They were instructed 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.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative advocacy group based in Scottsdale, Ariz., filed a motion to quash — or nullify — the subpoenas on grounds they are irrelevant to the case, overly broad and “cause undue burden or harassment.”
Fox News correspondent Todd Starnes, author of God Less America, a collection of stories about Christians claiming intolerance of their faith, jumped on the controversy, calling it a “strong-arm attack on religious liberty” and intimidation “by government thugs.”
The liberal Media Matters for America, meanwhile, dismissed the whole thing as “basic lawyering,” arguing that the subpoenas are in response to a lawsuit filed by HERO opponents and sermons are not immune to being subpoenaed.
“The subpoenas are meant to gather information about improper church behavior,” commented Media Matters researcher Carlos Maza, adding that broad subpoenas aren’t unusual.
City Attorney David Feldman admitted to reporters the wording of the subpoena is “overly broad,” but the mayor posted on Twitter Oct. 14: “If the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game.”
The Baptists signing the letter said they “disagree on many things” but as Baptists “have a long history of support for religious liberty and separation of church and state.”
“On that, we stand united,” they said. “Our ancestors stood in the colonial and revolutionary eras demanding the disestablishment of state churches, the end to state licensing of preachers, and the cessation of penalties for religious dissenters. Our forebears — some of whom were imprisoned — petitioned for a First Amendment guarantee of religious liberty, for everyone, because we believe as Baptists that God alone is Lord of the conscience.”
They said government oversight and intimidation of preaching is more than just bad public relations. “This is about something that is fundamental to basic, self-evident rights that are endowed not by government but by nature and nature’s God,” the letter said.