Amid an outcry by the religious right, Houston mayor Annise Parker has withdrawn subpoenas issued to five local ministers in connection with a lawsuit over the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance.
“I didn’t do this to satisfy them,” Parker said of her critics Wednesday, the Houston Chronicle reports. “I did it because it was not serving Houston.”
The subpoenas have led to accusations that the city government is trying to interfere with religious freedom. The string of events leading to the subpoenas’ issuance started in May, when the Houston City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. A group of local pastors who opposed the ordinance then circulated petitions aiming to put a measure on the ballot in next week’s election that would allow citizens to vote on whether to repeal it.
But after the ministers turned in their petitions, city attorney David Feldman ruled there were not enough valid signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot. The pastors then sued, claiming Feldman was in error.
In September, in preparing its defense in the lawsuit, the city issued the subpoenas to ministers who had been particularly outspoken against the ordinance, seeking “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to [the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance], the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.”
The request for sermons drew especially strong criticism, both locally and from national conservative commentators, and Parker had that language dropped from the subpoenas two weeks ago. A meeting with ministers from Houston and elsewhere Tuesday convinced her to withdraw the subpoenas altogether, she told the Chronicle. She said she did not believe the request for information was illegal or a violation of religious freedom, but she did not want to see the city plunged into a debate over religious liberty.
“The goal of the subpoenas is to defend against a lawsuit and not to provoke a public debate,” Parker told the paper. “I don’t want to have a national debate about freedom of religion when my whole purpose is to defend a strong and wonderful and appropriate city ordinance against local attack.”
Withdrawing the subpoenas may make it harder for the city to mount its defense, she said, but it is still committed to defending the ordinance aggressively. Court proceedings in the lawsuit will begin in January.
Dropping the subpoenas mollified some of Parker’s critics but not others. Andy Taylor, the plaintiffs’ attorney, called her move a “head fake” and said the city should cease defending itself in the suit and let the ordinance go to a vote. “She’s using this litigation to try to squelch the voting rights of over a million well-intentioned voters here in the city of Houston,” he told the Chronicle.