City subpoenas pastors' sermons in equal rights ordinance case

I find it deeply troubling that this even occurred in America. It’s such a flagrant violation of the 1st amendment. I guess it’s a reminder just how easily what some take for granted can be lost.

It does seem, as reported, to be a blatantly unconstitutional act. Is there anything that isn’t being reported, like allegations that the speeches were inciting illegal acts?

What exactly is the Constitutional violation here? I agree that it sounds like a dirty political move, but I don’t see a First Amendment violation in subpoenaing copies of speeches given in a public forum. The fact that the ‘speech’ happened to be a sermon is immaterial. So…dirty pool, yes…but unconstitutional, no. Constitutional scholars, please feel free to correct me if I’m missing something.
Now, if they are trying to subpoena copies of sermons that have yet to be given, that’s a different matter entirely…

It seems like blatant intimidation to me. Imagine being a minister and having the city government demanding copies of your sermons. It could easily make someone think twice about speaking out in a sermon. That is hindering free speech. imho

It’s quite insidious. People often look back at terrible events in history and say, “why didn’t people speak up? Why didn’t they oppose this?”. Well, if people are afraid they keep their mouths shut. Then there’s nothing to obstruct the events as they build momentum.

Ministers are in a unique position. There first duty is to teach the word of God as they understand it. Then provide comfort and support to members of their church in times of need. Then they also are expected to speak out about events in the community. Especially when it conflicts with the beliefs of their church.

Another way to look at it is to imagine any gov agency making this demand of any politician. Give us copies of your speeches. The uproar would be deafening.

The press often films and broadcasts major candidate’s speeches. That’s different from a government bureaucracy demanding copies.

Hopefully, the Motion to Quash will succeed. From what I’ve read, it looks like the preachers that got the subpoenas are not even parties to the the lawsuit. I fail to see how anything they may have said is relevant to the issues before the Court, which I assume to be whether the referendum initiative obtained enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Curious how the lawyers who sought the subpoenas thought this was a good idea–did they just cast wayyyy too broad a net?

Huh. Do you think it has anything to do with their tax exempt status and endorsing politicians?

They apparently are subpoenaing the information as part of “discovery” for a civil lawsuit in which the city is the *defendant *party. The lawyers may correct me: I believe you may seek to extract information from people who are not parties to the suit if it is relevant to your defense? Legally then it would not the same as an agency demanding the information of its own initiative for it’s own sake?

What would be the evidence to be obtained, though? That the preachers crossed the line into direct campaigning-from-the-pulpit to get their congregants to sign the referendum petitions? That someone induced congregants to Cheat For The Lord in the petition gathering? It may not affect the resolution of the lawsuit in the end, but as **Lightlystarched **mentions, could be seen as dropping a “nice tax exempt status you got there, good thing you avoid partisan politicking, right?” hint.

Maybe they just cast too broad a net, like LHOD wonders, but until I get more facts I’d be inclined to agree with Suburban Plankton – playing nastyball, but still this side of constitutional.

Stuff and nonsense! It’s right there in the Constitution that preachers can tell you who to vote for. Well, it does somewhere.

No violation of the First Amendment, and someone has to pull the reins in on pastors who abuse their pulpits like that. Left and Right. They can promote their beliefs, but in many cases it has crossed the line of constitutionality, and they have forsaken their protection from taxation by it. And the lawsuit only collects things they have already said in public, for use in a lawsuit. Unprotected speech.

The only way (to my non attorney mind) that this could have some validity would be if the sermons were in violation of the rules of 501© status. Sometimes there is a fine line between advocating social change from the pulpit and preaching “Vote for/against a politician/amendment/proposition/ordinance.”

It’s the principle of “chilling effect”.

Moved MPSISM --> GD.

Preachers can tell you who to vote for. They just can’t use money collected under the guise of being a chartable organization to do it.

Stuff like this is why I wish we’d just to away with the charitable giving deduction, though. It just gives rise to an endless succession of issues like this. Just tax donations like normal income, and then churches and organizations can do whatever they want with it.

I didn’t see that in the article - which politicians did they endorse?

Like what?


Aside from a possible tax exemption angle, it’s unclear to me what the subpoenas were supposed to accomplish, at least legally.

A fishing expedition, I would guess. And/or try to wear down the opposition by having them respond to subpoenas.


It’s not a First Amendment violation to subpoena documents from a church. It is not limiting anyone’s speech or restricting their free exercise. I doubt anyone has ever successfully argued that their speech was chilled because the government might eventually learn about it through civil discovery. That argument is a non-starter, since the potential for civil discovery is omnipresent and undoubtedly legitimate in a great many cases (like sexual abuse).

The subpoena might still be quashed as insufficiently targeted to getting relevant evidence. I don’t know Texas law, but the standards for getting a subpoena enforced are generally pretty low. It usually just has to be designed to lead to admissible evidence–it doesn’t even have to just be targeted at admissible evidence. I don’t know about the details of this case except from what I read in the OP’s link, but if the faith leaders said anything to their congregations about, say, getting signatures from people outside the relevant political jurisdiction or any number of other things that would be relevant to the signature collection process that happened in these same churches, it could absolutely lead to admissible evidence.

It’s a broad request, but that’s typical in civil litigation. A court is very unlikely to quash it as any kind of constitutional violation. It might quash it as too broad, but even that would largely be a political response. These kinds of subpoenas are upheld all the time when it’s not a church in Texas that’s the target.

It’s important to note, (Richard), that the pastors under subpoena are nonparties. Courts (at least here) generally construe the scope of discovery fairly narrowly as to third parties - at least where the objection is from that third party. I imagine they could quash the subpoena on the grounds that the sermons are proprietary or irrelevant before they ever need to reach the constitutional objection (which I agree is weak).

They’re not parties, so it’s hard to see how the request could relate to tax exemption even if the city was the correct entity to enforce 501(c)(3) regulations (or their state/local equivalents).

ETA: the only way I can see relevance here is if the pastors asked parishioners to sign the petition, which might invalidate those signatures.

I would not assume that the standard of relevance is narrower for a nonparty in Texas. In many places (not sure about Texas), the standard is the same for document production by parties and nonparties. What differs is who pays. Parties generally cover their own cost of production, but the requesting party usually has to pay for a non-party. Maybe Pravnik or some other TX practitioner will clarify for us.

I don’t think the irrelevance argument is open-and-shut by any means. We don’t know the content of these sermons. We do know that these churches were where the signature campaigns were centered, so it seems quite likely that they had something to say about the petition. It seems entirely plausible to me that they said something about who should be signing, for example, that would be relevant. And in general, relevance is the weakest ground on which to attack a subpoena. It’s too flexible and there’s almost always some plausible story to be told.

They could argue that they are proprietary, as you say, but I think they’d have an awfully hard time doing so successfully. At most that would be an argument for a protective order about how they are treated, but probably not a successful argument for getting the subpoena quashed altogether.