Religious Liberty is Under Attack

Why are Americans in general, and Utahns in particular, not outraged at the recent threats against religious rights in Houston, Texas? Of all the states intent on retaining their religious rights, Utah should be first in line. Religious worship is a fundamental freedom, yet our slumbering citizens seem unaware that this right is on the chopping block.

The first of Houston’s two major violations began with a city ordinance banning gay “discrimination” in commerce. Despite their prevalence, such ordinances wrongly insert government into citizen affairs because they dictate beliefs. Local churches began a petition drive to repeal the ordinance at the ballot box and collected over 30,000 signatures. The city secretary, authorized to validate the signatures, approved the minimum 17,000 signatures to initiate the repeal effort. Acting without legal authority, city attorney David Feldman threw out thousands of the validated signatures. A coalition of 400 Christian congregations filed a lawsuit against the city for civil rights violation of the First Amendment’s freedom of petition.

The second mistake came from Houston’s lesbian mayor, Annise Parker. In retaliation toward pastors who had been preaching against the anti-discrimination measure from their pulpits, the mayor issued subpoenas against five local ministers. She subpoenaed “all speeches, presentations, or sermons” related to the issue, the petition, the mayor, homosexuality, or gender identity. The subpoenaed materials also included confidential emails between pastors and their congregants. This kind of action is historically the opening salvo against rights and freedoms. The First Amendment’s freedoms were under attack.

As tensions mounted, pastors and patriots came from across the country to demand First Amendment rights of petition, speech and religion for Houston’s churches. By invitation, Utah joined the cause to stand with the five pastors and 400 congregations that backed them. Utah’s Cheralyn Bacon Eagar spoke at the October 29 press conference to declare that what happens to one of us happens to all; our rights must be defended or we forfeit them; if those who tear down freedom succeed in one city, the precedent is set for the fall of other cities; we cannot let this happen.

There are several important points here. First, the pastors acted legally to work for repeal of the anti-discrimination ordinance. IRS rules for 501(c)3 entities—the churches—prohibit only direct endorsements of individual candidates such as “Let’s all vote for John Smith”. They do no prohibit recommendations for or against legislation. Second, the civil rights of citizens who signed the petitions were violated when their valid signatures were thrown out. Americans have a constitutional right to petition the government. The violations mounted when an unauthorized city attorney acted on matters outside his legal jurisdiction. Third, the Constitutions of both state and nation were disregarded by the mayor. Our US Constitution guarantees the inalienable rights of religion, speech and petition, as does the Texas Constitution. Mayor Parker put herself above the laws of both.

The five subpoenaed Houston pastors have no intention of abandoning their religious rights. They’ve spoken to the media, in the press conference, personally to Utah’s contingent, and in the Nov 2nd “I Stand Sunday” event at Grace Community Church in Houston. Steve Riggle, the pastor, and president of the Houston Area Pastors Council, said, “When elected officials abuse the power of their office…we must stand against that action, whatever the cost.” Another, Khanh Huynh of Houston’s Vietnamese Baptist Church, risked his life to flee Communist Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. He said, “In North Vietnam, people died fighting for freedom of religion and speech [which] we could not express…I never thought I would see the marching boots of tyranny here.” He fled to the US to find these rights and now sees them being taken away. Pastor Magda Hermida, whose ministry bears her name, said, “We never thought we would see this happen in our country…This is the police state we experienced in Cuba. We cannot allow this.”

This issue is not about gay rights or the other bullying issues being used against the public. It is about maintaining the privileges of US citizens and upholding the law. The federal Constitution’s First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging freedom of speech…or the right of petition.” That’s crystal clear. Those protesting these violations are fighting for freedom, just as did our Founding Fathers 2 ½ centuries ago.

From the outset, those against the gay marriage agenda have said the issue would be used to destroy religious liberty—that activists and then government would deny churches the right to teach the biblical stand against homosexuality. Houston’s mayor proved they were right. No government official has a right to information involving a congregation’s teachings, doctrines or members, nor can a government tell a church what to believe or teach. This is flagrantly illegal.

This issue has not been resolved and patriots have only begun this defense of freedom. America stands where she stood in the late 1700s. We can be grateful to Houston’s ministers for refusing to set the precedent of caving before government illegality. As it was over two centuries ago, some don’t see the need for freedom and some don’t care. Among the rest, coalitions are forming across the nation, including Utah, to uphold the rule of law. Be alert and get involved. Otherwise, you could become a closet Christian by necessity.