Houston Mayor Annise Parker announced Wednesday that the city will withdraw subpoenas it sent to five pastors who opposed a rule banning discrimination against gays and lesbians.
The subpoenas drew fire from conservative groups across the country, which called them an attack on religious liberty and freedom of speech. The controversy emerged during a legal battle over the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, known as HERO, which expanded the city's ban on discrimination to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
At a press conference, Parker said withdrawing the subpoenas was in the city’s best interest.
“Protecting the HERO from being repealed is important to Houston, but I also understand the concerns of the religious community regarding the subpoenas,” she said in a press release. “Today’s move refocuses the discussion and allows us to move forward.”
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Conservatives said the announcement was a victory for religious liberty.
“Today’s decision is welcome news and long overdue,” said U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican. “The First Amendment guarantees a right to free speech and religious freedom for all.”
The subpoenas, sent to some outspoken pastors and religious leaders who had opposed the ordinance, had asked for “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.”
Parker has said that the controversy was based on a misunderstanding. The goal of the subpoenas, she said earlier this month, was to see if there were any specific instructions given by pastors about how to fill out a petition challenging the ordinance. She suggested that the outrage over the word "sermon" in the subpoenas may have been due to “deliberate misinterpretation.”
The ordinance applies to businesses that serve the public, as well as city contractors and municipal workers. The City Council approved it in May after an intense public debate.
In August, city officials announced that an effort by conservative activists and pastors to put the ordinance’s repeal to voters failed to draw enough signatures. Opponents of the ordinance later took the issue to the courts, alleging in a lawsuit that the city inappropriately disqualified some of the signatures.