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Houston city attorneys are attempting to subpoena sermon texts in an ongoing battle over an "equal rights" bill that once required access to restrooms by transgendered persons.

Religious liberty advocates are swinging back after attorneys for the city of Houston subpoenaed several area churches and pastors for sermons, emails and other communications allegedly encouraging support for a referendum to overturn the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.

According to the Houston Chronicle, the ordinance initially contained a provision to open restrooms to all who identify with a given gender, but Mayor Annise Parker removed it from the final bill. Instead, Religion News Service reported, "transgender people barred access to a restroom would be able to file a discrimination complaint."

The City Council passed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance in May. The measure, commonly called HERO, is binding on city employment and contracting businesses that serve the public as well as private employers and housing providers. Religious institutions were exempt, the Chronicle reported.

Still, opponents launched a petition drive calling for a referendum vote on HERO in November. In August, Houston's city attorney rejected the referendum petitions as invalid, according to KTRK-TV. In response, conservative Christian activists filed a lawsuit to have the petitions declared valid.

That lawsuit prompted Houston's attorneys to subpoena "all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession."

The pastors served with subpoenas for their materials said they were not part of the referendum lawsuit. An earlier Chronicle report (paywall) suggested pastors in the city were "divided" on the provisions of the HERO measure.

And news of the subpoenas generated fiery reaction.

Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, blogged, "A government has no business using subpoena power to intimidate or bully the preaching and instruction of any church, any synagogue, any mosque, or any other place of worship. The pastors of Houston should tell the government that they will not trample over consciences, over the First Amendment and over God-given natural rights."

Moore added, "Our country deserves our allegiance. But no government can set itself up as our god."

Arizona-based religious liberty law firm Alliance Defending Freedom has asked a court to issue an injunction blocking the city's subpoenas. The group said Houston's "subpoena of sermons and other pastoral communications is both needless and unprecedented," according to litigation counsel Christiana Holcomb. "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."

The pastors themselves, Fox News columnist Todd Starnes reported, apparently aren't ready to cave. "This is an attempt to chill pastors from speaking to the cultural issues of the day," Steve Riggle, senior pastor of Grace Community Church, told Starnes. "The mayor would like to silence our voice. She’s a bully."

Rev. Dave Welch, who heads the US Pastor's Council's Texas branch, and who was also served a subpoena, told Starnes "We are not going to yield our First Amendment rights. This is absolutely a complete abuse of authority."

The issue of government involvement in what churches can and cannot say politically has been an ongoing matter of contention.

In July, an atheist group said the Internal Revenue Service agreed to investigate churches allegedly making political pronouncements in violation of federal regulations. And in October, a reported 1,500 pastors engaged in "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," an ADF-sponsored event aimed at provoking an IRS action that in turn would lead to a court case that would overturn the 1954 "Johnson Amendment" which created the IRS ban.

Email: mkellner@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @Mark_Kellner