In the last few days there has been a furor over the information reported from Houston, that the lesbian Mayor Annise Parker has litigiously demanded several of Houston’s pastors’ sermons and the pastors’ personal correspondence with congregants. The fracas is ongoing, and has been for a few years. I did write on Wednesday about the recent issue of the wide-net subpoena, here.
|Dr Albert Mohler|
I’ll recap, quoting excerpts from Al Mohler’s excellent synopsis. Albert Mohler is an “American theologian and the ninth president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky” according to Wikipedia.
When news broke earlier this week that the attorneys working for the City of Houston had issued subpoenas to pastors for sermons, I was fairly certain that some mistake had been made. When the actual text of the subpoena came to me, I could hardly believe my eyes. Here was a legal demand, sent to Christian pastors in the name of one of America’s largest cities, to surrender “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO (an anti-discrimination ordinance), the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.”
The controversy started when Mayor Parker, often described as the first openly gay mayor of a major American city, led the effort to adopt an anti-discrimination law that, among other things, allows transgender persons to file a complaint and bring charges if they are denied access to a bathroom. Several Houston-area pastors were involved in an effort to rescind the ordinance. They participated in a petition drive that would have put the question before voters, mobilizing their congregations on the issue. They were able to get more than the required number of signatures on the petition, but the city attorney ruled many of the signatures invalid due to technicalities. The city attorney intervened after the appropriate city official had already certified the petitions as adequate. This set the stage for the lawsuit, and the lawsuit set the stage for the subpoenas.
The subpoenas set the stage for the current controversy. The very fact that the subpoenas were issued at all is scandal enough — none of the pastors is even party to the lawsuit. But the actual wording of the subpoenas is draconian — almost unbelievable. The attorneys working for the city demanded all sermons “prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession” on matters that included, not only the mayor and the ordinance, but homosexuality and gender identity.
Dr Mohler said it is a ‘breathtaking violation of religious liberty.’ I agree. The horses are out of the barn and there is no recalling them. Now, any or all pastors can be bullied, threatened, or otherwise coerced into producing work product for out-of-control government thugs.
|TX Attorney General Greg Abbott|
I’m going to put on my citizen hat for a moment. The government is supposed to serve us. To that end, many states have an Open Records policy. Texas does. It is called the Public Information Act. The purpose of such acts are described by the Texas Attorney General,
The People are not without resources. Government records are open precisely to push back against such bullying against the citizenry. Annise Parker has said that if any “pastor used the pulpit for politics, their sermons are fair game”.
The Public can also request records. The Public does not have to lodge a suit, hire a lawyer, or go hat in hand. They may even examine records for FREE, if doing so inside the premises. There may be some REASONABLE costs for labor or copying fees.
The Public may demand any legally covered work-product from Annise Parker in her office as Mayor, or any Council member, or other elected or government official, to examine. The Public does not have to say who they are, or why they want it, or what they plan to do with it.
How do I know this?
I read the Texas Open Records Law.
The litigation lodged against the pastors is worded thus, again from Dr Mohler’s essay:
‘The attorneys working for the city demanded all sermons “prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession” on matters that included, not only the mayor and the ordinance, but homosexuality and gender identity.
What if the public demanded, following Open Records protocols, in similar language, “all work-product, speeches, emails, correspondence, and other matter in the Houston Mayor’s Office held by, produced by, overseen by, delivered by or otherwise retained in the Houston Mayor’s possession or adjunct storage, on matters that include, references or discuss homosexuality and gender identity’ ? If such a request legally falls under open records, the Mayor’s office would have to produce it. PROMPTLY.
From Texas Attorney General Office FAQ:
What types of records are subject to the Public Information Act?
Any information collected, assembled, or maintained by or for a governmental body is subject to the Public Information Act. The format (paper, electronic, microfilm, etc.) of the record does not affect its status as a public record.
What is a “governmental body”?
For purposes of the Public Information Act, the term “governmental body” encompasses all Texas public entities at the state and local levels.
I believe a City Mayor’s office qualifies as a ‘local government body’ don’t you?
The FAQ further states that the Mayor (or other government body) does not have the right to withhold records nor to make their own determination of what constitutes an open record.
For example, one time I requested under Open Records the products related to an issue in the School Department. In one illegally held document, eventually discovered, contended for, and produced, the School Department had bought a stamp and stamped in large red letters across the document, CONFIDENTIAL’. Simply self-stamping an open records document Confidential doesn’t make it confidential, lol. But that kind of monkeying with language is going on in the fracas in Houston. The Mayor yesterday changed her demand from sermons to “speeches.” Yes, this is an out-of-control government.
There are some exclusions from Open Records. The Judiciary, some personnel records, or negotiations/contracts are often excluded. This is reasonable. Other exclusions are listed specifically in the TX Handbook, linked below.
Again, Open Records are, by law in place to help the Public push back against aggressive or overly-authoritarian government bodies or elected officials. Its purpose is to help the citizenry keep the government transparent, and to educate the citizenry on issues in which the government is addressing on their behalf. I’m not speaking just about Houston but of all local and State and Federal public entities. Citizens (so far) still have rights. Whether the Government entity will adhere to the demands is a different story. A unexercised muscle will atrophy. Here is an example I was involved with.
In Maine, the Maine Society of Professional Journalists decided to test the muscularity of the Freedom of Access law by setting up an audit. (Detractors called it ‘a sting’).
The findings were depressing. The last audit had been in 1978. Between 1978 and 2002, governments had closed up considerably, and not to the benefit of the citizen.
From the Audit results: “A public records audit is a test of government compliance with public access laws, otherwise known as sunshine laws or right-to-know laws“.
They trained us reporters in the Law, created three simple requests (one, I remember for example, was for local expense reports from the mayor or town Administrator, the police were asked to produce a police log, I think), and we were trained in what to say and not say. We were to leave if we were denied, and we were to make notes on whether we were asked who we were or why we wanted it. Requests were made to School Departments, Municipal Governments, and to Police.
In some cases, full compliance was given, in more cases though, access to records was denied. The findings plus comments and notes from the reporters were made public. Embarrassed and chastened, the State of Maine formed the Compliance Committee and tasked 12 people selected from around the state and employed by different public and private entities, to participate. I was one of the 12 appointed to this committee. We were to review Maine’s FOA law and submit the report to the Legislative House and Senate for their denial or approval as an amendment to Maine’s existing FOA law. We did so and the overhaul was accepted by the State Legislative body. Because of the Journalists’ audit, and resulting action on the State of Maine, Maine’s Freedom of Access law was strengthened on behalf of the citizens.
Government that is supposed to serve the public in transparent honesty had become very, very closed, guarded, and sometimes downright hostile to the people they were supposed to be serving. The audit had become necessary. Again, an unexercised muscle atrophies. Citizens, know your rights and use them from time to time.
So. Open Records, Houston. FAIR GAME.
Here are three resources which explain the Texas Open Records Law (Public Information Act). The first one is at the UTexas and is short. The second one is the FAQ from the TX State Attorney General. The third one is THE 2014 Handbook explaining the PIA from the AG’s Office. It is 329 pages, but it has a Table of Contents, and segments of the law are stated then explained in real language.
If a person decides they want to obtain open records from any government office, there are a few things to remember, and I address this to the public at large and especially to Christians.
The personnel at the copy machines and secretaries and administrators who carry out the PIA requests are people. They deserve politeness and consideration.
Do your homework. If a person makes an Open Records request, know what is and is not legally available to you. Be considerate by having read the pertinent parts of the law and not making extra work for the people in the offices by having to figure out your request. As is stated in the FAQ, the receiving office does not have to answer your questions, interpret the law for you or otherwise provide information other than your specific, written request. One must not make make ridiculous or frivolous requests.
Records requested have to actually exist. General requests such as “Anything the Town Manager might email next week” will not fall under the Law.
Any person requesting information under PIA should be legible, specific, and polite. I’ve said polite three times now.
The citizenry has rights. We do have resources that protect us against aggressive governments. Though we as Christians do submit to our government leaders, as long as there are mechanisms in place to legally help the citizenry monitor our government, we should use them. When Apostle Paul was accused in Judea, as a Roman citizen he had a right to appeal to Rome and be tried there instead of Galilee or Jerusalem. Paul employed a mechanism that was available to him. (Acts 25:11, Acts 25:21, Acts 28:19). That is what these mechanisms are there for- to help the citizen obtain justice or for relief from an unjust or oppressive government.
Aggressive government is a pet peeve of mine. I’m speaking more as a temporary citizen of earth and less so as a Christian. But as a Christian, we should remember eventually in this age, it looks more and more like western Christianity has had its day. The threat of jail just for preaching the bible has become very real.
Here are the links:
Texas Attorney General tells Houston city hall: Stop bullying Christians
[AG] Abbott called the subpoenas “aggressive and invasive” and said they show “no regard for the very serious First Amendment considerations at stake.” “Whether you intend it to be so or not, your action is a direct assault on the religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment,” Abbott wrote, demanding that the subpoenas be rescinded. “You should immediately instruct your lawyers to withdraw the city’s subpoenas,” he added.