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After Massive Outrage, Houston Pulls Plug on Pastor Subpoenas

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Annise Parker sees the light. Of the television cameras.
Credit: zblume

The City of Houston and Mayor Annise Parker caused a holy ruckus with an overly expansive subpoena against local religious leaders. The leaders did not like Houston's newly passed anti-discrimination ordinance, which covers gay and transgender people. They gathered signatures to force the new law onto the ballot for a vote. But the city tossed out many of the signatures as invalid, preventing the vote, and proponents sued them.

As part of the fight, the city issued subpoenas to get information to defend its decision. This is not unusual. What drew attention, though, were the remarkably broad demands made by the subpoena against people who weren't even parties to the lawsuit. It asked for "all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to [the 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." That appeared to be far more than a request for information relevant to whether the signatures gathered were valid. Naturally, many saw this as a huge intrusion into the rights of folks to freely practice religion.

Originally the city defended the subpoena and Parker complained on Twitter that the media were getting the facts wrong. Then the city admitted that maybe the subpoena was a bit too broad and that they would narrow it down. Now they're withdrawing the controversial subpoenas entirely. In a statement, Parker explains that she met with several pastors who apparently convinced her that she was wrong without bruising her ego:

"These pastors came to me for civil discussions about the issues," said Parker. They came without political agendas, without hate in their hearts and without any desire to debate the merits of the HERO. They simply wanted to express their passionate and very sincere concerns about the subpoenas. The second meeting group wasn't from Houston, but they took the Houston approach of civil discourse in presenting their case. We gained an understanding of each other's positions."

Thousands of the signatures submitted with the HERO petition failed to meet one or more of the requirements mandated by the City Charter and had to be disregarded. As a result, the petition was not placed on the ballot for voter consideration. HERO opponents have filed suit against the city in an effort to reverse this decision and force the issue to a vote.

Mayor Parker reiterated that this has always been about proving that the petition process used by the five pastors who identified themselves as the organizers of the effort did not meet the requirements of the City Charter. "That got lost in the national debate over the subpoenas," said Parker. "Today's move refocuses the discussion and allows us to move forward."

The reason the debate got lost was entirely because of what was demanded of the subpoenas themselves. While it's good Houston is backing off in this situation, what was never debated at all is that the abusive nature of these subpoenas could have been brought to bear against any group seeking to influence city ordinances, religious or secular. One demand from the subpoena was for any information used to "ensure the truthfulness and accuracy" of claims by opponents of the ordinance that the law would require Houston businesses to let men use the women's restrooms, threatening women's safety. This is typical transgender bathroom panic nonsense, and that's one of the arguments opponents were using to get people to sign. The subpoena is essentially demanding the pastors provide proof that their opinion of the potential consequences of this law is true, something that's arguably impossible. Certainly Houston's anti-discrimination ordinance wouldn't be the first law passed with unpredicted (or at least deliberately hidden) consequences.

Set aside the religious culture war entirely. The city's move suggested an intent to try to get a court to strike down the referendum push as illegitimate so that they wouldn't have to defend the law to a public that might not actually support Parker's pet project. Oppressive subpoenas like this happen all the time, which is probably why Houston didn't even realize it was poking at a hornet's nest. Cities across the country fight back like this against citizens attempting to exert their right to influence municipal policy. Cities and counties make every effort to make it difficult (if not impossible) for citizens to push forward referendums or initiatives that run counter to what civic leaders want. If the targets hadn't been pastors, would we even had known about the subpoenas? As Cato's Walter Olson briefly notes at his Overlawyered blog this morning in response to the withdrawal, "One instance of abusive litigation discovery down, 437,816 to go."

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  1. When will the tar and feathering take place, for overstepping her authority?

  2. Finally. WTF Houston. YOU have a problem.

  3. Good for them. And I get tired of listening to Christians who are victims of this shit whining. We get to play a very low stakes game here in the US. In other places in the world being a Christian will get you killed or imprisoned. Here it gets you made fun of by various imbeciles and subpenas from petty tyrant mayors. Big fucking deal. These people should be ecstatic at the idea of actually having the opportunity to stand up for their faith and tell a worldly authority to go fuck themselves. This is their chance to suffer a bit for their faith and make their bones as good Christians. And unlike most of the rest of the world, no one has to die or spend their lives in prison.

    1. You know *why* we haven’t gotten to the point of imprisoning or killing people for their religion? Is it because the persecution-minded people are nicer in the U.S. than in other countries? No, it’s because would-be victims don’t wait around, twiddling their thumbs, and saying “gosh, let’s see where they’re going with this.” We have an American population which, to a large extent, remains conscious of its rights.

      It’s the same reason the public hasn’t been disarmed yet – because gun-owners don’t sit around waiting for things to get as bad as Australia or the U.K., but resist oppression when it first sticks its ugly head up.

      1. But yes, having persecution disclose itself in its true colors is of some benefit to Christians, reminding them of the need for faithfulness and the opportunity to witness.

      2. All true. And more reason why people should be happy to fight it now before it is too late.

  4. Anise Parker is such an embarrassment. This is going to be a fucked up city in 20 years since the democrats are becoming more and more entrenched. Love the boomtown economy, but hate that it imports yankees and Californians to ruin it.

    1. She is nothing but a lesbian Obama. From what my friends in the city tell me she is a complete moron who had no qualifications for the job beyond “wouldn’t it be great to elect a Lesbian mayor”.

      These idiots really are a living example of Heinlein’s quote about bad luck. They think California is doing so badly and it is so hard to live there because of bad luck. Houston is doing well because of good luck so they have moved there to benefit from that good luck. Since idiotic policies have nothing to do with it, they see no reason not to continue voting for the same policies they did in California. And besides, haven’t you always wanted a Lesbian mayor?

      1. Please see the Maryland/Virginia relationship. Morons in MD elect morons to office, morons in office pass exorbitant taxes, morons in MD leave MD for VA, proceed to elect the same type of morons to office in VA AND EXPECT A DIFFERENT RESULT.

        1. I have no shit heard people argue that DC is a model city of progressive governance for the rest of the country, and that the DC suburbs in MD are similarly admirable.

          These same fools elect politicians that have been driving all real industry out of the state. I’d be very interested to see what percentage of MD’s population is employed by governments or government contractors over time. I’d bet it tracks well with the relative affluence of the MD population, too.

          We steal from the rest of the country to fund our lavish lifestyles. The only truly sad (as opposed to evil) part about it is the rest of the country hasn’t taken up armed rebellion against us.

          Yet, anyway.

          1. If I am not mistaken Sad Beard wrote an entire long form article a year or two ago arguing that exact point. Washington DC was a model for all other cities and the proof was in its high average income and great job market.

            It seems to have actually never occurred to him that the federal government looting the rest of the country and spending a huge chunk of that money in the DC area might be responsible for its economic success and thus would make the DC model difficult to replicate in the areas of the country who are being looted to support DC.

            1. DC compares well with Rome in the old days:

              Rome lived upon its principal till ruin stared it in the face. Industry is the only true source of wealth, and there was no industry in Rome. By day the Ostia road was crowded with carts and muleteers, carrying to the great city the silks and spices of the East, the marble of Asia Minor, the timber of the Atlas, the grain of Africa and Egypt; and the carts brought out nothing but loads of dung. That was their return cargo.
              ~Winwood Reade, The Martyrdom of Man (1871)

              1. Any visit to the affluent parts of Montgomery, Howard, or Prince George’s counties will quickly bring to my mind thoughts of Rome in the waning days of the Western Empire.

            2. One of the many truly disgusting acts is that even as the union-backed party machine in this state has been driving jobs out of the state, including union jobs, people still jump lock-step in line to vote for the next shithead that the party decides to foist upon us. The motherfuckers who’ve never lifted a finger in their lives to do honest labor and sponge off the national taxpayer are actively fucking their hard-working neighbors, and the latter lap it up and ask for more! It baffles me.

            3. It’s fun to point out how like the ‘Hunger Games’ that is.

              It would have worked if it wasn’t for those teabaggers in District 13!

          2. But DC is a model of progressive governance.

            1. True, but not in the way they meant.

              In the same vein, Detroit is also a model of progressive governance. It just doesn’t have the benefit of being at the top of the feudal hierarchy like DC does.

      2. She looks like a genius next to Sheila Jackson Lee, so she has that going for her.

    2. Not to worry. Its looking more and more like this Florida Man will be moving back to town to do his part around the first of the year. Had a good interview with a firm that supervises construction projects for the “awl bidness”. Its a different fucking world. They talk about 9 figure construction process like they are every day occurrence. And I guess they are right now. We’ll see. I’m heading out there in a couple of weeks to do a final interview and try to sell my wife on the idea.

      1. Brett,

        Good luck. Working in Houston in the “awl bidness” is great.

      2. Welcome to the greatest business in the world. Haven’t done a deal worth less than $250MM in a while. Exciting times.

      3. Good luck. Moved here 15 months ago to do contracts related to the “awl bidness” and it is, in fact, good times.

  5. It asked for “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to [the 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.”

    I still think it would have been a great FU to just overwhelm the mayor’s email with “all presentations in your possession” — that is, downloaded from the internet — containing the “gender identity” terms “he, she, it, …”.

  6. “One demand from the subpoena was for any information used to “ensure the truthfulness and accuracy” of claims by opponents of the ordinance that the law would require Houston businesses to let men use the women’s restrooms, threatening women’s safety. This is typical transgender bathroom panic nonsense, and that’s one of the arguments opponents were using to get people to sign. The subpoena is essentially demanding the pastors provide proof that their opinion of the potential consequences of this law is true, something that’s arguably impossible. Certainly Houston’s anti-discrimination ordinance wouldn’t be the first law passed with unpredicted (or at least deliberately hidden) consequences.”

    So, (a) these fears of unisex bathrooms may in fact come true, but (b) it’s “nonsense” to bring it up.

    All right, then.

    1. The panic that something bad will happen is nonsense. They should nevertheless be allowed to make that argument as part of their effort to get signatures.

  7. Well, she’s stupid, but she’s an idiot, too. So she has that going for her.

  8. “They came without political agendas, without hate in their hearts and without any desire to debate the merits of the HERO. They simply wanted to express their passionate and very sincere concerns about the subpoenas. The second meeting group wasn’t from Houston, but they took the Houston approach of civil discourse in presenting their case. We gained an understanding of each other’s positions.”

    So, if they’d been less respectful of her authority, the subpoenas would have stood?

    1. OTOH, I suppose it’s a good thing that the mayor has such low expectations of her opponents that she’s impressed when they’re civil to her. Meeting low expectations can have the same effect as heroic virtue, it seems!

      1. “I thought they would drool on the carpet and invoke a voodoo curse on me, but instead they made their case calmly and eloquently – I’m so impressed, it improved my opinion of them considerably!”

      2. That’s awfully white of her.

    2. they took the Houston approach of civil discourse in presenting their case.

      So she regards serving grossly illegal, abusive, and overreaching subpoenas is “civil discourse”?

  9. These are the abusive tactics of the Deep State, the layers and layers of unaccountable bureaucrats, prosecutors, and operatives. This is what is being done to anyone who supports Scott Walker in Wisconsin.

    And it works. Even winning these fights is expensive, draining, and chilling.

    And even if you win, then what? The Deep State operatives are still in place, still pulling paychecks, still pursuing their agenda. Even if you win, you lose, and even if they lose, they win.

    And people wonder why I’m so tiresomely bitter and pessimistic at times.

    1. All of that and a bag of chips. The only way to do anything about this is to start taking action directly against such people so that they start to fear the consequences of doing these things.

      They have literally put the public in the position that their only alternative is to engage in acts of violence and criminality such as burning the people who did this’ homes down. And at some point that sort of thing is going to start happening. And won’t that be lovely?

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