A major concern rises from Houston, Texas, right now. As part of a fight that began with expanding civil rights laws to address gender/sexual identity issues, the Mayor of Houston, with the City Attorney, have subpoenaed not only the sermons of five area pastors but all of their communications about the Equal Rights Ordinance.
Now, first off, let me say that I’m not trying to dig into the yay/nay on that ordinance. Understanding what is happening around this law is what matters. First, the City Council passed a law. The City Charter allows petitioners to force any law (ordinance) passed by the Council on to the ballot to be decided by the voters. Because there were opinions that this law exceeded social norms that were acceptable, and seeing a threat in it, there was an area group that petitioned to drive that law onto the ballot. They submitted their petition.
The Mayor rejected it. If the activist group is right, the Mayor exceeded her authority in doing so. They therefore sued. In response, the Mayor has subpoenaed information not only from the people suing her, but from their pastors. This is where it gets interesting.
We must admit that when you sue someone, you open your life and actions to certain examinations that you are otherwise shielded from by a right to privacy. If I sue you for making me disabled, I have invited you to prove me wrong. There are limits to the fishing expedition, however, and it appears the case at hand crosses those.
Because some of those subpoenaed are not party to the case at hand. It would be akin to subpoenaing my sermons on genetically modified food crops when one of my church member farmers was part of the class-action against Bayer CropScience a few years back. It wasn’t my lawsuit, even if my preaching pushed him to join. (It didn’t, as I have never preached on GMOs.)
The Mayor defends her actions, though, by alleging that these pastors were involved in “political” speech, and that they cannot hide behind the 1st Amendment for that. There are a couple of problems with that.
First, what makes speech “political?” Assuming, for the moment, that there should be limits on political speech, what makes that content? Is gender identity political or moral? What about free association? Is it political to claim that marriage is defined by “Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother cleave unto his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” just because there are political attempts to force the law to either respect or ignore that definition?
The dividing line between “political,” “religious,” and “moral” speech is a great fuzzy nonsense. Any time there is a governance process in view, then speech that seeks to affect it is political. This is whether you are John Bunyan preaching without government permission, Elijah Craig preaching for some to overthrow the government, or Martin Luther King, Jr., preaching to change the government. Or Elijah Mohammed doing the same, or Louis Farrakhan, or Al Gore, Jr., preaching in a worship service about global warming!
All laws are made through politics and based on moral principles. All of them—the law that says you can’t kill me? That’s based on morality and came to be law through politics. Does this make preaching against murder political? Or can I base it on Scripture and call it religious?
Trying to divide speech into hard categories like “political” and “religious” just does not work. Religious speech by necessity affects the behavior of its adherents throughout their everyday lives. One expects that a sermon commending love and patience will be seen throughout the week—if a riot broke out in Houston next week, and pastors urged calm from their congregations, are they preaching politics? Is it sinful?
I do not doubt that the city would welcome their aid in stopping the riot without bloodshed.
All of this shows why it is that churches and other religious organizations (mosques, synagogues, temples, reading rooms, etc…) must zealously guard the concept of free speech on all fronts. It’s nonsensical to expect religious teaching that does not drive action. Action in society always has moral and political implications.
Second, though, is the faulty assumption that the government has a right to police speech.
Take a quick look at the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. (from USConstitution.net)
Quick, what does it say about limits of speech? None. Now, logical people have noted reasonable limits such as the classic “Fire!” shout in a crowd. That’s right: there is no governmental right to repress speech that is not immediately dangerous to others. If we were dealing with preaching (be it Christian, Jewish, or Muslim) that was stirring up an immediate riot, then there would be grounds to shut it down.
We are looking at sermons and meetings done to organize a petition to the government…which also appears in the 1st Amendment. In fact, it looks like the only thing 1st Amendment not in view here is the press. But Houston seems to have a problem with religion and its exercise; with speech; with assembling people to talk about politics; and petitioning the government.
Governor Hutchinson would be proud.
PS: if you want my sermons, they’re online.