Even though the First Amendment already protects free speech and also prevents the government from establishing a religion, the Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, stepped into dangerous territory today over both constitutional guarantees. Abbott signed SB24 which “protects” sermons from being subpoenaed. . . and he did so in Grace Community Church in The Woodlands, Texas. How does this move not show disregard for the seperation of church and the secular state?
SB24 stems from 2014 when several Houston area pastors stirred up a bigoted effort that successfully overturned a city ordinance meant to protect various groups of marginalized citizens, including transgender people. Former Houston Mayor, Annise Parker sought to subpoena sermons from those pastors, an effort that she later dropped. While Parker’s attempt was a slipper slope, it begs the question of the content of those sermons.
Supporters of SB24 will argue that it was necessary to protect the free speech of clergy. But, again, we already have the First Amendment. A bill like this will likely be challenged in the courts in due time, but what does this mean for sermons that incite violence, inspire congregants to commit hate crimes, or those that give tacit approval to discriminatory practices in the name of “sincerely held religious beliefs”? One only need to look at the damage evangelical Scott Lively has done, in places like Uganda, to know just how powerful rhetoric, especially the hateful variety, can be when it comes from the pulpit. It’s the “Christian” version of radicalization.
So, what does this new law now mean for anti-gay speech from bully pulpits? What about speech demonizing social justice advocates? Immigrants? Women?
Dan Patrick, the Texas legislature, and Greg Abbott have essentially shielded Christianist pastors from all responsibility for the words they proclaim from the pulpit. I believe in protecting the free speech of even those with whom I disagree. I also believe a vile remark form a pastor will not automatically mean someone listening in the pews will carry out a violent crime. However, there’s a fine line between a preacher speaking his or her mind and using religious speech that could provoke actions that lead to discriminatory or even violent practices.
As as an ordained minister, I believe I am called to deliver a message that is filled with love and compassion for all people. One of the main underpinnings of the Gospel is that it accepts all and loves all. It does not seek to marginalize people. Unfortunately, there are too many congregations where, on any given Sunday, the people will hear a message that denigrates and dehumanizes whole groups in the general population. In fact, Greg Abbott recently called on some these very congregations to assist in promoting one of the mosts xenophobic agendas in the US.
The people of Texas deserve better. And the Christian community deserves better representation than those who would take part in an agenda that offers hate instead of love.