Pastors sued city of Houston over denied petition

Pastors sue the city of Houston after the invalidation of a petition without explanation.

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| Infographic by Angelica Abalos/THE CHIMES

Grace Gibney, Writer

The mayor of Houston withdrew the subpoenas requesting sermons and various materials regarding homosexuality and gender identity on Oct 29. The subpoenaed materials were to be used as evidence in a lawsuit that pastors filed against the city over an invalidated petition to repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, according to Click 2 Houston.

Five pastors that received subpoenas, a request for a presentation of information regarding sermon content, said Houston city officials have violated first amendment freedoms in churches and among voters, said Hernan Castaño, pastor of Rios de Aceite, one of the five pastors who received a subpoena.

THE HEART OF THE ISSUE

On May 14, 2014 the Houston city council passed HERO, which bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in businesses that serve the public, private employers, housing, city employment and city contracting. Religious institutions are exempt. Opponents of HERO, which included a coalition of churches and citizens of Houston, gathered 55,000 signatures to request a popular vote of the ordinance on the November ballot.

Despite city secretary Anna Russell validating the signatures, city attorney David Feldman determined only 15,249 of the signatures valid, placing it below the minimum 17,249 signatures needed to force a referendum. The signatures declared invalid include that of Houston Councilman Oliver Pennington, said Kerri Kupec, legal communications director for Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal organization working alongside the five Houston pastors who received subpoenas.

“The city is attempting to chill their speech and they’re sending a message: ‘If you speak up and you dare to disagree with us, we will make you pay,’” Kupec said.

The Houston mayor’s office was unavailable to comment after multiple attempts by the Chimes to contact a spokesperson.

In response to the city of Houston invalidating the signatures, the congregation of Rios de Aceite opposes actions made by city officials to keep citizens from voting on the ordinance, Castaño said.

BALANCING CHURCHES AND POLITICS

The subpoenas analyzed whether sermons from the five pastors were intended for political campaigning purposes, according to the Washington Post. Nonprofit organizations, like churches and other organizations that identify with a certain religion, can encourage citizens to vote, but cannot support a particular candidate for public office through partisan activities without losing their nonprofit status, according to the IRS website.

Members of the church congregations have reached out to the city of Houston with support regarding first amendment freedoms for pastors. Members of Rios de Aceite send Bibles to Houston City Hall as a response to the Mayor Parker’s concerns regarding from where the content of the pastors’ sermons originates, Castaño said.

“It actually turned out to be an even greater call for them to now raise up their voices as well among other people of the nation,” Castaño said.

Pastors sent thousands of invitations in recent months to meet and discuss the issue with Mayor Parker, but all efforts for conversation were declined, Castaño said.

Southern California pastors are watching the Houston situation unfold between Houston congregations and city officials. The church needs to address issues relating to the gospel, rather than speaking into partisan politics, said David Fletcher, executive pastor at First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton.

“We want to take issues that are pertinent to the gospel, and then we’ll speak on those as loudly and as long as we need to be. Hopefully they’ll be graciously done and lovingly implemented, but we need to be firm where we think the gospel is firm,” Fletcher said.

The Family Research Council will host the “I Stand Sunday” rally on Nov. 2 at Houston’s Grace Community Church, church of founding pastor Steve Ripple, one of the five pastors who received a subpoena from Houston attorneys. The event is free, with webcast streaming of speeches from the five Houston pastors and nationally-recognized Christians who will share how to practice Christian faith without government intrusion.

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