When the Government Subpoenas a Pastor
Q&A with Dr. Steve Riggle
Dr. Steve Riggle is founding pastor of Grace Community Church in Houston, Texas. An influential church with three campuses and thousands of members, Grace has been exceedingly generous to the people of Houston —providing a major homeless shelter, hurricane relief, support for inner-city churches—and has drawn awards and acclaim from local officials across many years. That history didn’t shield them last summer when Riggle joined other prominent pastors in speaking out against a new citywide ordinance opening all public restrooms to people of both genders.
City leaders blamed the pastors’ comments for igniting overwhelming pushback against the law, including enough citizens’ petitions to put the issue to a public vote and later, a citizens’ lawsuit, when the city ignored those petitions. Though the pastors weren’t party to the lawsuit, officials filed an invasive subpoena against five of them—including Riggle—demanding that they turn over all communication related to the issue, including sermons and private emails with church members. Amid the ensuing media furor, Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys represented the pastors, and their efforts soon forced the city to rescind the subpoenas.
Church leaders tried to meet with the mayor to talk about this bathroom law before it was passed, correct?
We requested to meet with her, which she was not inclined to do. We were the only group, as far as we know, that the mayor did not meet with. All we asked was, “Mayor, let the people vote on it.” But she said [in public statements], “What we’re talking about here is my life. I’m not going to let the citizens of Houston vote on my equal rights.” She knows it would not pass muster at all.
So city leaders refused to put this on a ballot. They ignored a number of verified citizens’ petitions asking that the issue be put to a vote. A group of citizens filed a lawsuit over that. Then the mayor hit you and your fellow pastors with these subpoenas. Were you surprised?
I thought, “You’ve got to be crazy to do this.” All this fuss, this national outrage … she could get our sermons off the Internet if she wanted to. Or if she had just called and said, “Hey, could I have all your sermons?” We’d have said, “Absolutely.” But when the state demands it, and they’re going to force it—that’s [when] we said, “No.” We weren’t going to be pushed.
If it’s going to be a criminal offense when you don’t want men to go into women’s restrooms in Houston, it certainly ought to be a crime when the mayor and city attorney steal the voting rights of the fourth-largest city in the country
What did you tell your congregation, when you talked about the subpoenas?
I said this is a First Amendment issue. It’s about religious liberty, and fundamentally, this is a smoke screen by the mayor. She thinks that this will distract from the real issue, which is that she and the city attorney took away the voting rights of the fourth-largest city in the country. Because we had the signatures on those petitions. The city secretary verified the signatures.
Basically, the people’s right to vote was stolen. So, we have to stand up. We have to stand up for First Amendment rights on those subpoenas, because it’s not just about beating it here. It’s about setting precedent. If [city officials] get by with that here in Houston, don’t think that’s not going to be used all over the country. If they can steal the election in Houston, other officials around the country who have their own personal agenda will do that, too.
None of us chose this. We didn’t attack the mayor. We only stood up for our rights. And we did it respectfully. [But] you never know what the spark is that ignites the forest fire.
What do you say to Christians who would say, “This is why pastors shouldn’t talk politics”?
If I don’t stand for these things and teach the congregation and speak to them about the issues of the culture, then who is going to be the prophetic voice to the people of Grace [Community Church]? The news media? The talk show hosts? Because they’re the only ones talking!
It’s not just about a pastor standing behind that podium, it’s his leadership. He’s influencing people. Pastors don’t realize the power of their voice. They don’t have to have a megachurch. If they have 20 people, or 100, [or] if it were all the pastors’ voices together, that is a megaphone.
If pastors will stand up and lead their churches, the people will stand up, because they’re looking for leadership. And if that happens, we just may turn this tide of moral depravity that we find ourselves neck-deep in right now.
What has it meant for you and your fellow pastors to be successfully represented by ADF?
We could not have fought this battle without these attorneys and their support. It’s one thing for us to stand up and say, “No way” … another to have attorneys who know the law behind us.
That enables you to stand without being afraid of the government. Because the reality is, we’re standing all by ourselves, and now the whole power of the state has come against us. We don’t have the resources or the ability to fight back. And to have … these attorneys come in to partner with pastors who will stand—it’s just incredible. To me, it says it just may be possible to win some victories now.