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.
– The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America
Many people of faith are alarmed this week, as the attacks on our “first freedom”—religious liberty—are escalating across our nation. From the government of one of America’s largest cities openly challenging pastors, to secular activists challenging the right of AiG and its subsidiaries to maintain our religious identity, the First Amendment protections afforded to Christians and all Americans are being jeopardized like never before.
In Houston, Texas, an unprecedented affront to free speech is developing. The confrontation began this summer, when the city council passed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), allowing open, “gender neutral” access to public facilities. Basically, this “bathroom bill” allows people to choose which restroom to use depending on which gender they identify with; men may use the women’s restrooms and women may use the men’s. Understandably, many of the citizens of Houston feared that this could lead to increased sexual assault, especially on women and children.
A petition was soon circulating to either repeal the “bathroom bill” or at least allow the citizens of Houston to vote on it. The petition soon collected over 50,000 signatures—three times more than the minimum requirement for the city to take action on the request. Although the city secretary approved and certified the validity of the petition, it was thrown out by Mayor Annise Parker (Houston’s first openly lesbian mayor) and the city attorney, due to some alleged problems. Opponents of the bill then filed a lawsuit against the city.
Pastors who refuse could be accused of contempt of court and slapped with a fine or even jail time!
According to a recent statement from the city,1 “pro-bono attorneys helping the city prepare for the trial” responded by issuing a subpoena against several Houston pastors, demanding that they turn over their constitutionally protected sermons, speeches, and presentations that have anything to do with HERO (the bathroom bill), the petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, and/or gender identity.2 The pastors were also ordered to turn over to the city any communications they have had with those in their congregation about these topics. Pastors who refuse could be accused of contempt of court and slapped with a fine or even jail time! The city’s action is shocking, especially when one considers that the pastors under subpoena are not even involved in the lawsuit, and the documents they are being forced to produce have nothing to do with the litigation.
The Houston discovery requests (i.e., the pre-trial portion of a lawsuit where both parties gather relevant information to the case, in this instance, the city’s subpoena) are being opposed by the pastors, who have filed a motion with the court to quash the subpoena.3 Their attorneys with the Alliance Defending Freedom have accurately argued in a brief to the court that the overbroad and harassing subpoena is demanding materials that are clearly protected by the First Amendment. As one of the pastors’ attorneys stated, “The city’s subpoena of sermons and other pastoral communications is both needless and unprecedented . . . . The city council and its attorneys are engaging in an inquisition designed to stifle any critique of its actions. Political and social commentary is not a crime; it is protected by the First Amendment.”4
This subpoena is a clear and targeted attack on religious freedom in America. Under the First Amendment, explains Dr. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the government cannot “supervise, license, or bully religious institutions.”5 This is an attempt by the city of Houston to intimidate pastors and other citizens into silence about expressing their views on political matters. Of course, the sermons preached from an open pulpit are free for all to hear, and in many cases are even posted on church websites. But to subpoena a pastor’s sermons, much less the private communications on various topics the government finds objectionable, is clearly intimidation, threatening every pastor’s freedom to speak out on topics vital to the welfare of the people looking from the pew to the pulpit for leadership.
Mayor Parker has reportedly backed down somewhat, claiming that she and the city attorney had no knowledge subpoenas had been issued until the news broke. A recent statement from the mayor’s office “says the city will ‘move to narrow the scope during an upcoming court hearing’” and that “the focus should be only on communications related to the petitions to overturn the ordinance.”6 In fact, just today the defendants in the lawsuit revised the subpoena request to read, “All speeches or presentations related to HERO or the Petition prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession,” removing “sermons” from the list as well as “Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuals, or gender identity” as topics.7 However, that does not change the fact that on Wednesday, Mayor Annise Parker sent out a tweet claiming, “If the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game.”8
American pastors have been “using their pulpits for politics” . . . since before the American Revolution.
Does Mayor Parker think these pastors are telling their congregations whom to vote for? No! Such a statement is outrageous. American pastors have been “using their pulpits for politics”—sounding the clarion call for their people to stand up for their beliefs about morality and religion and all concerns that affect the safety of their families—since before the American Revolution. A primary complaint of the original colonists was that the British Parliament’s unfettered authority to legislate for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever” (Declaratory Act, 1766) was a threat to the colonists’ religious freedom. They felt that such overbroad government authority had been abused by the government-established church across the Atlantic.9 Later, when the new country adopted the Constitution, many (James Madison among them) quite justifiably thought that the Constitution alone was sufficient protection for the basic freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, press, petition, and so forth. But because some states continued to violate the religious rights of some denominations, James Madison drafted the Bill of Rights10—the first ten amendments to the Constitution—to ensure that there would be no doubt that these and other rights enumerated therein would be protected permanently! The speech of American pastors, even from the pulpit, has been specifically protected against government intrusion and oversight ever since the Bill of Rights was ratified.
What is happening in Houston does not reflect “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” This is a government that is trampling the rights of the people—their rights to free speech, and the free exercise of religion, and the rights of all citizens to petition the government for redress of their grievances against a law that many of them (at least 50,000, evidently!) believe will violate their rights to safety and privacy.
As we noted above, this is not just happening in Houston. Similar attempts to stifle religious freedom are occurring around the country, and even right here in Kentucky. As we have reported before, the radical anti-Christian, anti-creationist group, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), has been vigorously opposing Answers in Genesis and Ark Encounter’s rights to exercise our freedom of speech and freedom of religion. AU is actively trying to intimidate the state of Kentucky into removing its support of the Ark Encounter theme park—a project that is expected to pour millions of dollars into state coffers.
Ark Encounter has been preliminarily approved, if it meets expected sales after it opens, to receive an $18 million dollar tax rebate. The state of Kentucky has offered this tax incentive to many different groups to encourage them to build in Kentucky instead of another state. But AU does not want Ark Encounter to be able to participate in this same rebate program—simply because we are Christian. Of course, a refusal to allow a religious organization the same incentive as everyone else is obviously unconstitutional and discriminatory.
AU is claiming that Ark Encounter (which has yet to draw up any policies in regard to hiring procedures and has yet to hire a single employee) should not be allowed to receive the tax rebates if it expects future employees to agree with the mission of the project. Unfortunately for AU, this is a well-established right of religious organizations under federal and state laws. Obviously, religious organizations are allowed to hire those who agree with their religious viewpoints. This is only logical. After all, does AU agree that it should be forced to hire biblical creationists? Of course not! Both AU and AiG (and Ark Encounter) are allowed to exercise our rights in hiring those who agree with us. And, as we have said before, Ark Encounter will comply with all applicable laws when the time comes to start hiring.
Groups such as AU are very vocal when it comes to opposing religious freedom. Clearly they do not want freedom of religion; they want freedom from Christianity. And they do not seem to care if what they want violates the Constitution or the freedoms guaranteed therein.
There is a strong parallel between the situation for pastors in Houston and the situation with Ark Encounter in Kentucky. In both of these instances, the government or a group is trying to infringe on Christians’ constitutionally-protected freedom to live out their faith. The faulty premise beneath all of this is the wrong belief that Christians merely have the freedom of “worship,” but not to exercise religion. Yet, read the First Amendment again. It protects the “free exercise” of religion and the rights of everyone—including Bible-believing Christians—to voice their opinions vocally, in the press, and in the spoken word. That includes what pastors say from the pulpit. In Houston, a small, very vocal minority is trying to force religious groups to keep their faith strictly within the four walls of each church. As soon as Christians try to bring their faith into the public square, they face the government’s wrath.
Believers must stand firmly on the Word of God and boldly and unashamedly proclaim its truth to this generation.
Christians need to be equally vocal in standing up for what they believe in. Religious freedom is under attack, but Christians by no means need to wave a white flag of surrender. We need to be bold in telling the world what we believe and pointing our lost culture back to its foundation—the Word of God. America was founded on godly principles but, sadly, we have drifted away from that firm foundation and have begun to do “
what is right in our own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Believers must stand firmly on the Word of God and boldly and unashamedly proclaim its truth to this generation—even (and perhaps especially) when government officials and radical organizations seek to stifle it.
Christians would do well to remember that their rights are not granted to them by anyone other than God Himself. (This fact is acknowledged in the Declaration of Independence.) While we live in a country governed by laws—a condition we can be thankful for—those laws do not ultimately determine what is right and wrong. We have been given a clear command by our God and Savior to proclaim the gospel and to teach all of His disciples to obey His teachings—regardless of what the government thinks of them. As the Apostles were carrying out that command in the days and weeks after Pentecost, the Jewish government (the Sanhedrin) sought to censor their teaching and prohibited them from speaking and acting in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:18, 5:28–29, 40). But Peter and John, along with the other Apostles, obeyed God rather than men and prayed for boldness to do so even after they were imprisoned and beaten for calling people to trust in Christ for salvation and obey His commands (Acts 3–5). While we work toward defending our current rights and the rights of others, we must not put our hope in government systems (remembering that even the best of them are controlled by sinful, fallen people), but remember that the gospel is the power of God to salvation and proclaim that truth, praying for the same boldness the Apostles asked for. Regardless of what happens to our constitutional rights, let us be found faithful to boldly preach the truth of God’s Word in the power of His Spirit (2 Timothy 4:1–5). Please see Ken Ham’s article “Are Christians Commanded to Change the Culture?” for more information.
Update: As of October 29, 2014, the mayor of Houston has now dropped the subpoenas of the five pastors’ sermons. According to Fox News, “‘I didn’t do this to satisfy them,’ Mayor Annise Parker said in reference to critics of the subpoenas. ‘I did it because it was not serving Houston.’”
Madison and others originally opposed the idea of a Bill of Rights because they feared some people would believe that only the enumerated rights were protected. However, the ongoing plight of Baptists in Anglican Virginia ultimately pushed James Madison (himself a nominal Anglican and eventual author of the Bill of Rights) to pursue guarantees of religious freedom in his home state of Virginia and eventually for the new nation. For the complete history of the Christian roots and biblical basis of our Bill of Rights, see Michael Farris, From Tyndale to Madison: How the Death of an English Martyr Led to the American Bill of Rights (Nashville: B & H Publishing, 2007).
As to the question of whether people have more rights than those named in the Bill of Rights, that question was dealt with in the Ninth Amendment—“The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people”—as well as in the Tenth. This principle played out in later years when the Supreme Court recognized a right of privacy, which was not specified in the Bill of Rights or Constitution, as protected.