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In case you haven’t heard, 2,500 congregations across the United States participated in “I Stand Sunday” last weekend, an event intended to support “the pastors and churches in Houston, Texas who have been unduly intimidated by the city’s mayor in demanding they hand over private church communication.” For readers who haven’t followed this news story, it all began last May when Houston passed an ordinance aimed at protecting the civil liberties of LGBT people. It’s an anti-gay discrimination policy that actually exempted religious institutions. (In other words, it did not apply to churches, non-profit ministries, and so forth.) Those who opposed this ordinance, including a group of Houston pastors, attempted to repeal it by gaining enough signatures to place it on a ballot. Though they obtained approximately 50,000 signatures, most of them were nullified on technical legal grounds. A group of Christians then sued the city of Houston. In response, Houston’s lawyers sent subpoenas to five local pastors who participated in the repeal effort. The subpoenas asked for “all speeches, presentations, or sermon related to HERO [the ordinance], the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.”
Not surprisingly, this created a national uproar, with accusations of the violation of the first amendment and a fair amount of vitriol directed at Houston’s mayor. This is the point at which I first heard about the ordinance, the petition, the subpoenas. Facebook friends posted links that sounded the alarm about the eradication of religious freedom. Thankfully I’ve learned to read multiple sources before jumping on the bandwagon of fear and rage. So I did. More rational analyses indicated that the city’s lawyers had overreached their bounds with such a broad subpoena. At the same time, they also suggested that sermons could be legally subpoenaed in certain cases.
Indeed, Mayor Park said as much and the subpoenas were narrowed so as to exclude sermons. But Christian ire is not easily mollified these days. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee urged pastors across the United States to send Parker a bible and all of their sermons, because “obviously she could use a few.” So upwards of 1000 bibles were received and who knows how many sermons. At this point, my ire got up, followed quickly by disappointment and distress by this rhetoric and these actions, which seem to completely ignore some basic scriptural admonitions: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44) and “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (Rom. 12:14). Put more pointedly, I’m not sure that Mayor Parker is the one who most needs to read the bible.
Finally and most recently after a meeting with a number of evangelical Christian leaders, Mayor Parker rescinded the subpoenas altogether in hopes of avoiding a national debate on religious freedom. This, too, however was not enough, and so there was “I Stand Sunday,” which included a pointed message directed at her, “Don’t mess with the pulpits of America,” along with crass comments directed at the women of Houston from Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty. This last piece gives some substance to one of my suspicions all along: the level of outrage and hostility is related to the fact that Houston’s mayor is a woman and a lesbian.
Now to be fair, there was prayer for revival, perhaps for reform during this event as well. In fact, “I Stand Sunday” occurred two days after Reformation Day (October 31), its title harkening back to Martin Luther’s famous words to those who would excommunicate him: “Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God. Amen.” However, beyond the common use of the word “stand,” I fail to see much similarity between the two contexts.