The Texas Senate has held its first hearing on the “sermon safeguard” bill (SB 24). The bill would make it illegal for Texas or local governments to subpoena a sermon from a religious leader, or to compel testimony about a sermon’s contents.
The measure stems in large part from the fight over the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance or HERO. Supporters argue the bill is necessary, in light of former Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s 2014 attempt to subpoena the sermons of five pastors seeking HERO’s repeal.
“Most people of faith are not going to know what to do in these situations,” said Jonathan Saenz, president of the religious advocacy group Texas Values, who testified in favor of the bill. “And as I’ve seen in my work for close to two decades in law and public policy, that if you don’t have something specific in law, some people are going to use that, to intimidate and make people believe that they have to follow their view on this issue.”
Legal scholars argue the bill would do little to protect religious liberty beyond what is already guaranteed by the First Amendment.
“[Mayor Parker’s] subpoena requests were obviously overbroad and overburdensome and violated principles of religious freedom,” said Charles “Rocky” Rhodes, a professor of constitutional law at South Texas College of Law Houston. “But that kind of overbroad request is both very, very rare and can be taken care of under existing doctrines.” Even when such requests are made, he said, they’re typically quashed by the court.
The now-defunct HERO aimed to prevent discrimination against LGBT individuals in public accommodations. The Texas Senate is now considering SB 6, often referred to as the “bathroom bill,” to prevent local governments from adopting such ordinances. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has identified both bills among his top priorities for the current legislative session.