July/August 2017 Church & State - July/August 2016

Texas Governor Signs Law That Prevents Sermons From Being Subpoenaed

  AU admin

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed into law a bill that shields pastors’ sermons from government subpoenas.

Senate Bill 24 was motivated by a backlash against a controversy in Houston in 2014 when the city tried to subpoena the sermons of several pastors who may have spoken out against a proposed law that would have protected LGBTQ people from discrimination.

In a letter asking Abbott to veto SB 24, Americans United Legislative Director Maggie Garrett acknowledged the Houston debacle was an overly broad request that AU spoke out against at the time.

“Government must be thoughtful and judicious when subpoenaing materials from religious organizations, especially materials as central to worship as sermons,” Garrett noted.

However, Garrett wrote that the new “Sermon Protection Act” also was overly broad and could have unintended consequences. AU noted instances in which faith leaders have been accused of encouraging congregations to be involved in illegal activities – including rape, murder and terrorism – and their sermons were used as evidence in criminal cases.

“In cases when materials such as sermons may demonstrate that a religious organization or religious leader engaged in illegal activity, the government should be able to compel production of the evidence,” Garrett wrote. “When it comes to enforcing the law, religious speech – and in practice religious speakers – should not get a free pass to hide illegal activities behind church walls or in the words of sermons. In the rare instances when this occurs, a subpoena could be a critical tool.”

Nonetheless, Abbott signed the law on May 19 and then held a second, ceremonial signing during the Sunday service of a Houston church that was caught up in the 2014 subpoena scandal, according to The Texas Tribune.

“Texas law now will be your strength and your sword and your shield,” Abbott said, invoking a Bible verse, according to The Tribune. “You will be shielded by any effort by any other government official in any other part of the state of Texas from having subpoenas to try to pry into what you’re doing here in your churches.”

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