As of the week, 11/18-11/25, 2014 local government officials began subpoena processes on the sermons (speeches) of 5 Christian pastors in Houston, TX. This is a clear violation of separation of Church and State and freedom of religion, IF AND ONLY IF these pastors’ speeches and operations are free from political interests for and/or against candidates in times of election or for and/or against civil ordinance referendum process.
Our Freedom of Religion in America is not a carte blanche pass to mix Church and State interests. Using the pulpit for political purposes would be an abuse of power; and these pastors were admittedly organizationally involved as leaders in political petitioning, which compromises their 501c3 status and gives reasonable cause for these subpoenas. When a church files for 501c3 status, it declares to the Government that it is not politically involved with political parties, candidates, campaigning or lobbying.
When these pastors took it upon themselves to lead in a civil petition effort, they forfeited the religious integrity of their pulpit and churches. In our governmental system, one may either be an official religious leader or one may be an official political leader, but the two may not mix. According to the Christian Post, “they all participated in the coalition of 400 Houston area churches that stood in disapproval of the ordinance.” Though these pastors may have had good intentions in wanting the people of Houston to have a vote and recourse via a referendum, they should not have compromised their pulpits and ministries’ integrity to do it. They should have resigned before organizing and/or taking leading roles in this political action. If they wish the local government to not “mess with Texas pulpits,” then Texas pulpits initially should not have become political lobbying centers.
At the most, these pastors’ licenses (if they have them) may be pulled or suspended, and their churches may lose 501c3 status due to their political involvement.
UPDATE: Oct. 20, 2014
Though Houston Mayor, Annise Parker Withdraws Subpoenas as a result of national outcry (not legality), the Scandal is not Fully Resolved in the minds of many Christians. While I am an advocate of freedom of religion and the separation of Church and State which results from that freedom; and while I do not believe that the State should “silence the Church” whimsically, I must agree with David Feldman and Annise Parker when they say this outcry reveals how little the American people understand the 1st Amendment as it applies to local and Federal laws.
On the other hand, I also observe that Annise Parker and David Feldman do not fully understand the 1st Amendment’s implications for governmental representatives. David Feldman is only partially correct in saying, “If someone is speaking from the pulpit and it’s political speech, then it’s not going to be protected.” Annise Parker is likewise at a half-fault for saying, “If the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game.” Though a solid argument can be made from theology that opinion should not be spread from the pulpit, political opinion as it touches morality and faith can be legally stated from a religious figure, so long as it is clearly stated as personal opinion.
The fine legal line which must not be crossed by ministers is: political activity (ex. campaigning, lobbying, petition drive/organization, referendum action) by religious leaders (i.e. licensed and employed 501c3 clergy). On crossing that line, the Houston pastors and their sermons (speeches) were indeed “fair game.”
Conversely, the legal lines which must not be crossed by governmental office holders is: intimidation and/or infringement upon::
- The right of the people to freely gather and lawfully practice religion.
- The right to freedom of speech.