“Sermon Safeguard” Bill Signed by Texas Governor at Church of One of the ‘Houston Five’ Pastors

Gov. Greg Abbott, accompanied by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and dozens of pastors including the "Houston Five" whose sermons were subpoenaed by the city of Houston, ceremonially signs Senate Bill 24 during the service on Sunday, May 21, 2017, at Woodlands Grace Church in The Woodlands. Texas Senate Bill 24 blocks religious sermons from being subpoenaed by governmental entities. (Michael Minasi)

Gov. Greg Abbott, accompanied by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and dozens of pastors including the “Houston Five” whose sermons were subpoenaed by the city of Houston, ceremonially signs Senate Bill 24 during the service on Sunday, May 21, 2017, at Woodlands Grace Church in The Woodlands. Texas Senate Bill 24 blocks religious sermons from being subpoenaed by governmental entities. (Michael Minasi)

In a controversial move, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick went to Sunday service at Grace Woodlands Church to ceremonially sign Senate Bill 24, otherwise known as the “sermon safeguard.”

The bill was created in response to five Houston pastors having their sermons subpoenaed by the city of Houston in 2014.

It started when former Houston Mayor Annise Parker introduced the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO, in April 2014. The ordinance prohibited discrimination based on many characteristics often seen of anti-discrimination policies at universities or companies; however, the ordinance’s initial inclusion of a section allowing people to use the restroom or locker room that best fit their gender identity did not bode well with some.

In response to opposition, this section of the ordinance was removed, then HERO was approved by the City Council. Grace Woodlands Pastor Steve Riggle was one of many Houston-area pastors who opposed the ordinance and wanted to petition a repeal referendum of the ordinance to bring HERO to a vote.

To do this, it required a petition with roughly 17,000 valid signatures; over 50,000 signatures were submitted to the city for review. The signatures were validated by the city’s secretary, then denounced by the city attorney, who threw out roughly half of the petition’s pages because he said some signatures and pages had not been properly notarized.

From this, a lawsuit against the city was formed by some of the Houston-area pastors. In response to the lawsuit, city attorneys subpoenaed sermons of five Houston pastors during the discovery phase of the case, with the report that one of the subpoenaed pastors was electioneering on the pulpit.

The subpoena requested “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.”

Parker and the subpoenas received backlash that extended far beyond Houston’s limits, as the subpoena appeared overbroad to some. Abbott said when the subpoenas were sent out in 2014 (while he was the attorney general), he reportedly notified Parker that she was “violating the First Amendment and must immediately withdraw her demand of papers.”

“We got in a situation we had never been in, didn’t want to be in,” Riggle said of resisting HERO. “We got our sermons subpoenaed, which is a difficult position, because you’d sure like the mayor to read the sermons and to listen to them, but at the same time, we weren’t about to give them over because of a document that was given to us in subpoena form. We felt like that was wrong, so we said no.”

With the refusal from the five Houston pastors and backlash from opponents, the subpoenas were withdrawn and the legal battle continued in court. HERO was ultimately placed on the November ballot and denied by Houston residents.

Soon after, Patrick introduced SB 24, which prevents the government from requesting audio, video or written sermons from Texas’ religious leaders in legal proceedings in which the governmental unit is a party. Religious leaders also would not be compelled to testify regarding the sermon.

The bill passed through the House and Senate, with Abbott and Patrick signing the bill Friday, putting it immediately into law. Abbott and Patrick then arrived Sunday to ceremonially sign the law in front of the Grace Community Churchcongregation.

Patrick has been a vocal opponent of transgender people using the bathroom of which they identify. Throughout his term as lieutenant governor, Patrick has openly supported multiple “bathroom bills,” recently including House Bill 2899 and Senate Bill 6.

“The pastor protection or the sermon protection act came about because of an issue, an issue that’s not a Republican issue or a Democrat issue or independent issue, it’s a rights issue – a right to keep men out of ladies’ rooms and to not allow boys and girls to shower together in the 10th grade,” Patrick said on Sunday at Grace Woodlands.

Patrick continued by saying America is “not split between Republicans and Democrats, but it’s split between those who believe in our savior Jesus Christ and those who are lost like I was once and all of us were.”

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SOURCE: The Houston Chronicle
Kelly Schafler

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