Over at First Things, Mark Movsesian has provided an adequate summary of “what’s happening in Houston.” The mayor’s office tried to subpoena documents from local pastors. The pastors cried foul, even though the mayor’s staff might have had legitimate grounds for the subpoenas. Movsesian thinks that the subpoenas won’t be allowed in this case.
Then he provides this analysis:
Still, even if these pastors succeed in resisting the subpoenas, significant damage has been done. It’s hard to see how this episode will not chill religious and political expression. Most people, quite rationally, want nothing to do with lawsuits and subpoenas. They don’t want to make legal history. The lesson they will draw from the episode is this: If you want to avoid trouble, don’t make politically-charged statements about religious convictions that the government doesn’t approve, even if you’re at a private meeting in your own church. In fact, don’t revise or retain such statements. Otherwise, who knows? You may one day have to lawyer up.
I think he’s exactly wrong in this.
The reaction against the subpoenas has been so swift and violent from all quarters that this situation should be viewed as a win for religious liberty. I can’t see how the encroaching state gained ground in this instance. The government overreached its boundaries and had its hand slapped by public opinion.
When news first broke, Mayor Annise Parker tweeted:
If the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game. Were instructions given on filling out anti-HERO petition?-A
— Annise Parker (@AnniseParker) October 15, 2014
By the next day she was backpedaling quickly and throwing pro-bono lawyers under the bus. These subpoenas have rightly embarrassed the mayor’s office. I’d be surprised if any government official or low-level bureaucrat tried something like this again anytime soon.
Movsesian, however, thinks the lesson people will learned is to be circumspect in religious speech, which of course he thinks is a bad thing. But I think that the real lesson learned in Houston is that Americans are still pretty touchy about their religious freedom. If anything, this episode will give Houston pastors more boldness in their speech. This is Texas. We’re not likely to let a little subpoena “chill religious and political expression.”
It seems to me that the government will tread carefully in this area for a while yet. Movsesian says that no one wants to lawyer up. That’s true. But what’s more true is that elected officials prefer to avoid a public relations debacle more than average citizens prefer to avoid lawyering up.
Government will one day attempt to bully pastors again. If public outcry is tepid next time, then perhaps government will attempt to curtail more and more religious expression. I pray that our pastors will have the grace to remain bold and faithful whether public opinion supports them or not. The example of the martyrs, both ancient and modern, testifies to Christianity’s willingness to express itself in the face of adversity. That day hasn’t arrived yet, however.
What’s really happened in Houston is that America started talking about religious liberty. And it seems that most of America still believes in it.
[You can find my initial reaction to the subpoenas here.]