Flag_inlineby Michael Nolan

Over the last two weeks I have read many e-mails, Facebook posts, and tweets and have had two conversations regarding what is going on in Houston.

In June, the city of Houston passed a nondiscrimination ordinance that included the right of transgendered persons to choose which public restrooms they will use based solely upon the gender with which they identify. This resulted in significant public backlash. A petition was circulated to force the issue onto the ballot for a public vote. Houston churches were largely responsible for spearheading the petition effort.

Although the petition accumulated far more than the legally required number of signatures, the mayor and city attorney deemed many of the signatures invalid and, therefore, rejected the petition. In response, some of the petitioners filed a lawsuit against the city.

As part of the discovery phase of the lawsuit, city attorneys drew up subpoenas demanding that five Houston pastors turn over any sermons that mention gender identity, homosexuality, or Houston’s mayor. At this point, the story exploded. Fox News broke the story under the headline “City of Houston demands pastors turn over sermons.” This has engendered significant public outcry and accusations that the city is violating the first amendment.

Many people are concerned about how this issue in Houston is likely to affect churches everywhere in relation to politics and homosexuality.

I have heard comments like these: “City officials have forced every church in Houston to turn over all of their sermons and they are looking through them for anything related to politics and homosexuality.” “I heard that if preachers have delivered sermons against homosexuality, the homosexual mayor is trying to put them in jail.” “What is going on in Houston will affect every church and pastor in America.”

When commenting on news stories like this, we should allow all the facts to surface prior to issuing comments. I am concerned that Facebook and other social media outlets have become the digital equivalents of tabloids. Certain so-called media organizations have shock value as their goal rather than honest reporting of the entire factual truth. (Truth-telling just isn’t as good for business!) And the American people, including many church members, seem to react to the slightest bit of information from mostly credible sources without checking the facts first.

Here is what I know:

  1. The subpoenas issued in Houston were limited to five churches.
  2. The city initially requested sermons, e-mails, and other records.
  3. The city has since issued new subpoenas seeking communications in relation to a Houston-passed equal rights ordinance. This ordinance allowed many things to which churches would be doctrinally opposed. The ordinance did exempt churches from having to comply.
  4. Many churches in Houston joined forces after the ordinance passed and started a petition in an attempt to force the issue onto the ballot for a public vote.
  5. The city of Houston rejected the petition on a technicality, even though it had the required number of signatures.
  6. The churches filed a lawsuit challenging the rejection.
  7. The city then issued the aforementioned subpoenas as a part of the discovery process. This was done to prepare for the lawsuit that the churches had filed.

So what is really in question is this: How were the petition signatures obtained, and did the churches do anything unlawful in gathering them? Nothing the churches said about homosexuality or immorality is in question, nor will it be. Pastors can preach on these matters according to their beliefs, articles of faith, and the Bible without any threat of legal retribution. The only matter in question is whether the pastors of these five churches called on their membership to act out politically (for example, voting a certain way, supporting a particular candidate, or, in this case, signing a petition). If they did so, they would have been acting as lobbyists. Political lobbying is not the church’s mission. If a church wants to get involved in lobbying, that enterprise has its own rules and regulations that are governed by the states and the federal government.

Alliance Defending Freedom is working on the case in Houston on behalf of the churches and their members. We will all be watching closely to see what happens as the case develops. In the meantime, with many elections occurring around the country at this time of year, it is helpful to remind ourselves what political activities are allowed (and disallowed) under the current legal guidelines. The following is an excerpt from my book The Business Side of Ministry, published by Regular Baptist Books:

How involved in politics can a church be? This topic comes up each election year, and the legal guidelines are not always clear. The Alliance Defense Fund [now called Alliance Defending Freedom] has offered a helpful clarification in a list of “Dos and Don’ts for Political Activities of Pastors,” summarized below:

  • A pastor may individually and personally endorse candidates for political office.
  • A church may not endorse candidates for political office, and a pastor may not endorse candidates on behalf of the church.
  • A pastor may allow his name to be used as a supporter of a candidate in the candidate’s own political advertisements. In this connection, the pastor may be identified as pastor of a particular church, if it is indicated that this is for identification purposes only and if it is indicated that the endorsement is by the pastor personally and not by the church.
  • Churches may engage in nonpartisan voter registration, voter identification, get out the vote, and voter education activities so long as such activities are not intended for the supporters of any particular candidate or political party.
  • A church may distribute a voter guide regarding candidates’ positions on various issues or a scorecard reporting on the voting records of incumbents. In such publications, the church or pastor may not state whether the candidate’s position or vote is consistent with the church’s.
  • A church may allow political candidates to speak on church premises; however, all candidates should be invited and given equal opportunity to speak. A candidate should not be allowed to appeal to a church congregation at a church service for funds to be used in his political campaign, and no member of the church should endorse a candidate in conjunction with the candidate’s visit.
  • Church facilities may be used by political candidates on the same basis that civic groups are allowed to . . . and should be charged the same amount.
  • A church may not establish a political action committee. Pastors and other like-minded individuals may establish a political action committee, but care should be taken that the committee is separate from the church and does not use the church’s assets.

Michael Nolan is CFO/treasurer and director of strategic ministry growth for the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. He also serves as director of Baptist Builders Club—USA.