10/22/2014 11:00:00 AM
Like many of you, I’ve been amazed and appalled by the recent actions of Houston Mayor Annise Parker. Not content to use her powers to advocate for an ordinance giving special privileges to homosexuals and transgendered persons, she has taken unprecedented steps to punish people of faith, whose only crime has been disagreeing with her.
Mayor Parker is charged with serving the citizens of her city. Instead, she and her staff have blatantly violated the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of religious expression, in an unconstitutional assertion of authority. It’s difficult to imagine a judge with any credibility doing anything but shutting down these shenanigans, but the mayor has already made her mindset clear: she sees orthodox Christian doctrine as a threat to her administration, and she’ll trample the Constitution to stifle that threat.
The great shame of this story is that the Church could have stopped this from happening a long time ago, and did nothing.
Mayor Parker was elected to her third term in office in 2013, and earlier this year proposed the euphemistically named "Houston Equal Rights Ordinance." It quickly became known as the “bathroom bill” because, among other provisions, it gave people the option of entering a men’s or women’s restroom in a public place on the basis of what they wanted their gender to be, as opposed to the gender God assigned them at birth.
Churches in Houston advocated against the ordinance, but it was passed into law. Churches in Houston circulated petitions to have the matter put to a public vote. The city attorney tossed the petitions, citing “irregularities.” Four residents have filed a lawsuit challenging the city attorney’s action.
Then on Oct. 14, the city subpoenaed five Houston pastors, none of which are party to the lawsuit, asking them for “all speeches, presentations or sermons” on topics ranging from the mayor, the ordinance and “gender identity.” You read that right. The city government of Houston has asked clergy to submit their communication with their congregations to City Hall for approval of some type. I don’t know if the subpoenaed pastors openly criticized the mayor for her actions and asked parishioners to sign the petitions during worship, and it wouldn’t matter. Short of advocating for the mayor’s electoral defeat or the election of her competitor (an impossibility since the election was last year), their communication would be constitutionally protected under the First Amendment. In any event, any alleged improprieties would fall under the purview of the federal Internal Revenue Service, not a municipal government.
Church and ministry leaders across the nation are right to decry Mayor Parker’s actions, and the mayor and her administration seem to be the only people who don’t realize she’s done something egregiously wrong. But there’s another aspect of this story that should not escape our notice.
The staff of our Center for Moral Clarity has produced some startling research that left me grieving for the state of the Church in that community. I mentioned earlier that Annise Parker won a third term as mayor in 2013. Online records from Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, reported that in that election, a little more than 260,000 people out of just under 2 million registered voters in the county actually turned out at the polls, a turnout of a little more than 13 percent. It’s not clear what percentage of the county’s voters live in the city of Houston, but a map suggests it’s an overwhelming majority.
Mayor Parker received a little over 97,000 votes, which was 57 percent of the votes cast in that race; eight challengers split the remaining votes. I’m not making this up. In a city the size of Houston, Texas, an additional turnout of 100,000 Bible-believing voters could have denied this mayor a third term in office, replaced her with a candidate with a clear respect for religious liberties, and avoided this sordid chapter in the city’s history altogether.
It’s one thing for Christian leaders in Houston to respond in outrage to some of their own receiving the threat of a government subpoena to share the content of their hearts with City Hall, under the threat of fines and imprisonment if they don’t comply. That’s what they should do. But where were they last year, when a mayor who clearly doesn’t share their values was eligible for re-election? Deciding that they didn’t need to get involved in politics, perhaps?
Liberals will tell you that politics is just another word for the things a community decides they will do together, and they’re right about that. The problem is, too many believers opt out of the decision-making process when they have a voice and then wonder why elected leaders do things that they shouldn’t.
A pro-life, pro-family mayor who respects religious liberties wouldn’t have subpoenaed pastors. She wouldn’t have proposed an ordinance granting special rights on the basis of sexual preference, either. When will we learn that the Church can't afford to be silent no more?
As I first said almost 10 years ago, our times demand it, our history compels it, our future requires it and, most importantly, God is watching.
- October 22, 2014