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Religious Liberty and the Bullies

James Tonkowich | ReligionToday.com Columnist | Friday, October 17, 2014

Religious Liberty and the Bullies

As I wrote The Liberty Threat: The Assault on Religious Freedom in America Today, people asked, tongue in cheek, if I was finding any violations of religious liberty. I was, of course, finding plenty, but this new one even shocks me: the city of Houston, Texas demanding pastors turn over transcripts of sermons and other communications that may have dealt with sexuality or gender.

Now in fairness, after Mayor Annise Parker called the sermons “fair game,” she has backed down—at least a bit, but regardless of recent changes, the story is chilling because of what she thought she could get away with. 

In May, the city adopted the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) that not only designated homosexual and transgendered people as protected classes, but also allows “gender confused” people to use any public restroom, locker room, or shower facility they wish regardless of the designation of “Men” or “Women” or “Boys” or “Girls” on the door.

That thrilled some in Houston including Mayor Parker who is openly lesbian and commented that the ordinance was “all about me.” Others including many pastors were shocked in part by the open door (pun intended) allowing sexual predators to exploit their newfound freedom to watch, stalk, and/or assault women and children.

So a petition drive ensued demanding the measure be put to public vote. While the City Secretary confirmed sufficient signatures to put the question on the ballot, the City Attorney stepped in and stopped it. That led to a lawsuit and the sermon subpoenas even though some of the pastors who received subpoenas have nothing to do with the suit. Nonetheless, those who refuse to comply risk being cited for contempt.

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) stepped in to protect the pastors and their pressure worked. As ADF Litigation Counsel Christiana Holcomb said, “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.” Their lawsuit to stop the subpoenas states that the city’s demands are “overbroad, unduly burdensome, harassing, and vexatious.” 

I strongly suspect that “overbroad, unduly burdensome, harassing, and vexatious” is just what those demands were intended to be with a great big side order of intimidating.

As Houston pastor Steve Riggle of Grace Community Church whose sermons and communications were subpoenaed told Fox News, “This is an attempt to chill pastors from speaking to the cultural issues of the day. The mayor would like to silence our voice. She’s a bully.”

As such, she’s part of a trend. Bullying and the censorship that comes with it appear to be the primary tactics for progressives these days.

Damon Linker, a columnist who abandoned conservatism for the progressive agenda in an article entitled “Why Do So Many Liberals Despise Christianity?” observed, “Contemporary liberals increasingly think and talk like a class of self-satisfied commissars enforcing a comprehensive, uniformly secular vision of the human good. The idea that someone, somewhere might devote her life to an alternative vision of the good — one that clashes in some respects with liberalism's moral creed — is increasingly intolerable.”

Elsewhere Linker wrote, “Liberals usually pride themselves on defending minority rights against the tyranny of the majority — and above all when the tyranny threatens to become more than metaphorical through the use of the coercive powers of the government. Yet when it comes to the rights of religious traditionalists, many liberals seem indifferent, and more than a few seem overtly hostile.”

Having in many cases substituted feelings, sentiment, and ideology for reason, progressives naturally drift toward using angry rhetoric, ad hominem attacks, and coercion—legal and less than legal—to get their way. That is, they bully and in bullying they show the weakness of their ideas and ideologies.

This week George Will observed, “The fact that censorship is progressivism’s default position regarding so many things is evidence of progressives’ pessimism about the ability of their agenda to advance under a regime of robust discussion. It also indicates the delight progressives derive from bossing people around and imposing a particular sensibility, in the name of diversity, of course.”

Bullies, as my dad told me when they plagued my young life, are insecure and cowardly. They win only when we let them. We defeat bullies when we stand up to them and denying them the pleasure of intimidation. So three cheers for the pastors and for ADF.

Our religious liberty and freedom of speech are too precious to cede because we caved in to bullies, bullies who want nothing more than to impose their worldview and their morality on us all without any resistance. 

Jim Tonkowich is a writer, commentator, and speaker focusing on the role of religion in our public life. His new book, The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today is available from St. Benedict Press and other online retailers. 

Publication date: October 17, 2014