October 15, 2014
Dear Mayor Parker and City Attorney Feldman,
On behalf of Interfaith Alliance, a national organization whose membership represents Americans from over 75 different religious traditions, as well as those who identify with no religious tradition, I write to express profound concern regarding the decision of Houston City Attorneys to subpoena the sermons of certain Houston clergy. Though we applaud your city’s non-discrimination ordinance and its intent to assure freedom and rights for all Americans, we abhor the idea of implementing this ordinance by infringing and violating the freedom of some Americans. To trample on one set of freedoms while seeking to expand another fails to capture the intent of the United States Constitution and violates the nature of our democracy. Although we are aware that this is an ongoing investigation and that media reports may not tell the whole story, what has come to light so far is profoundly disturbing and misrepresentative of those who have worked so hard to expand freedom for all.
I have been a consistently outspoken critic of efforts by law enforcement to monitor sermons at houses of worship, including, notably, the New York Police Department’s monitoring of mosques. Such religious freedom-compromising efforts have a dangerous, chilling effect on clergy and weaken religious freedom for everyone. At the same time, for well over a decade, I have argued that conservative challenges to anti-hate crime legislation – based on the fear that such laws would restrict ministers’ ability to preach freely – are unfounded.
Historically, the prophetic voice with which clergy and religious communities influence public policy, hold elected officials accountable, and shape the very contours of our democracy is one of the richest elements in our vibrant American religious tradition. Indeed, nothing has made me prouder over the last several years than the way that so many religious leaders have taken up the righteous cause of achieving equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. I personally have preached in churches across the country in support of legislation like Houston’s non-discrimination ordinance. I have supported clergy as they mobilized in support of marriage equality ballot initiatives. And I have helped religious communities raise their voice to protect LGBT couples’ right to adopt and foster children.
My understanding is that the sermons that reportedly were subpoenaed take a very different perspective than mine. However, I will work as hard to defend the freedom of speech from the pulpit for those with whom I disagree, as I will to defend the rights of the LGBT community. As long as a sermon is not inciting violence, the government has no business getting involved in the content of ministers’ sermons.
Religious communities, of course, do not have unfettered rights to participate in the political process. The IRS rightly restricts the ability of houses of worship to endorse candidates and political parties, to direct money to campaigns, and to spend above a certain percentage of their time on political activities. However, it should be clearly understood that the IRS does allow houses of worship to take positions on ballot initiatives and to advocate for those positions. These are common sense measures that strengthen the boundaries between religion and government and protect the independence of each.
In order to be effective, these laws must be enforced judiciously, equitably, and transparently. If religious communities fear that they can be targeted by state officials with whom they disagree, then religious freedom is in serious jeopardy. Subpoenaing the sermons of certain clergy because of their political, or even offensive, content sends a dangerous message to all clergy in Houston and across the country. If your office does not quickly seek to rectify or clarify this intrusion into a liberty protected by the First Amendment, then the ability of clergy to freely preach their religious beliefs and to minister to their congregations will be unnecessarily damaged.
While affirming your action to eliminate discrimination, I urge you to take swift action to ensure the freedom of all of Houston’s clergy – both those who support and those who oppose equality for members of the LGBT community – to use the voice guaranteed to them by the Constitution.
Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy
President, Interfaith Alliance
Interfaith Alliance is a network of people of diverse faiths and beliefs from across the country working together to build a resilient democracy and fulfill America’s promise of religious freedom and civil rights not just for some, but for all. We mobilize powerful coalitions to challenge Christian nationalism and religious extremism, while fostering a better understanding of the healthy boundaries between religion and government. We advocate at all levels of government for an equitable and just America where the freedoms of belief and religious practice are protected, and where all persons are treated with dignity and have the opportunity to thrive. For more information visit interfaithalliance.org.