The state's top two elected officials took to the pulpit Sunday, preaching the righteousness of conservative gender norms – and hitting on several other red meat Republican issues – before the governor signed a copy of a new law protecting sermons at a Woodlands church.
Senate Bill 24, listed among Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's top priorities, bars the government from forcing religious leaders to turn over copies of sermons during a civil lawsuit or administrative proceeding. It also bars the state from compelling a religious leader's testimony.
To mark the occasion at Grace Community Church in the Woodlands, Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott joined pastor Steve Riggle and three of the four others whose sermons were subpoenaed in 2014 by the city of Houston, igniting a political fire storm for then-mayor Annise Parker.
Riggle and the so-called "Houston Five" were fighting a proposed nondiscrimination ordinance, mostly over objections to the rights it would have extended to gay and transgender people. Parker and the city sought the sermons amid a legal battle over a petition drive led by the pastors.
The move sparked outrage nationwide from people who saw it as intimidation of the church and infringement on religious liberties. Parker said the city only wanted evidence related to any instructions the pastors may have given on how to conduct the petition drive. But she acknowledged the subpoena was overly broad and withdrew the request for sermons.
The officials' trip to the Woodlands was a celebratory tour of sorts, returning not only to where the issue originated but to deeply conservative territory where 72 percent of Montgomery County voters chose President Donald Trump in November, and where religion and politics easily mix.
"You are fighters for freedom," Abbott told the congregation, which is an offshoot of Grace's megachurch campus in Houston.
Patrick preached that the world needs the strength of America and Texas, and said deep divisions in the country aren't between political parties, but between Christians and non-Christians.
"The Sermon Protection Act came about because of an issue, an issue that's not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue," he said. "It's the right issue, and that's to keep men out of ladies' rooms."
The equal rights ordinance would have banned 15 categories of discrimination, including based on gender identity, but made no mention of public bathrooms. It was already illegal to assault someone in a restroom, but conservatives rallied votes against the measure by playing on fears of attacks. A campaign ad famously depicted a little girl at the hands of a male attacker in a bathroom stall.
"We never thought we'd need (the sermon law), but this is a crazy day," Riggle said. "We never thought we'd have to define men and women either, but here we are. We thought the name on the restroom doors actually meant something."
The bill passed easily, but wasn't without opposition. Some legal experts contended that its protections are too broad, and could hamper discovery in cases of church sexual abuse, forced marriage and corporal punishment.
Others found Sunday's ceremony inherently disturbing for its mix of politics and faith. To be sure, the church service sounded at times like a campaign stop, with plenty of glad handing.
A group of about 10 people held up signs by the church entrance off the North Freeway, protesting a breach of church and state separation.
"Our forefathers escaped tyrants that were heads of churches in Europe," said B.P. Herrington, who held up a poster that said "religion is a private matter."
Patrick and Abbott "should realize they are not defenders of faith as the queen of England is," he said. "They are servants of the people."
Herrington, a music professor and an Episcopalian, said the officials treat the churches as de facto political action committees.
But Riggle noted that American churches have long participated in politics. And the Trump administration has sought to make that easier. Earlier this month, the president signed an executive order aimed at removing enforcement of the longstanding ban on churches and other tax exempt organizations supporting political candidates.
Abbott noted the unusual nature of the ceremony, saying it might be the first time in Texas history a law was signed in a church.
In fact, according to the Senate Journal, the official signing happened in Austin on Friday, when the law became effective immediately.
The politicking in the Woodlands came as the Legislature was holding marathon sessions aimed at, among other things, passing a state budget before the legislative session ends May 29. Lawmakers were also considering debate on another priority of Patrick's – regulating the use of restrooms and locker rooms by transgender students.
Monday, May 22, 2017
Texas Governor Greg Abbott signs Sermon Protection Act into law
And now for something completely different--a measure to protect religious freedom. As reported by Mark Collette of the Houston Chronicle, May 21, 2017: