Houston's Mayor: Endangering Civil Rights

civilrights_2(BCN editor’s note: This is the first of two Ken Blackwell columns for Thursday.)

Tavis Smiley raised a lot of eyebrows this weekend when he spoke on ABC-TV’s This Week news show, hosted by George Stephanopoulos. Smiley pointed to double-digit unemployment in the Black community under President Obama and said: “If you’re Black or Brown, other than saving the Democrats’ hide, what inspires you to go out and vote?”

Economic empowerment for minority families is surely a vital issue, a hardy perennial in off-year elections. But it’s not the only issue. Minority voters have always been concerned with Civil Rights. And this year is no exception.

In Houston, Texas, we have seen a bizarre twist on traditional Civil Rights play out. The Mayor of Houston, Annise Parker, has been waging an uncivil war on people who oppose the far-reaching homosexual rights ordinance she powered through the City Council. That ordinance was widely criticized by Houston lay people and pastors, It would endanger protected Civil Rights already covered by the First Amendment, i.e., freedom of religion, critics of Mayor Parker’s ordinance said.

Opponents of the Parker measure organized in their churches and resolved to take the issue to Houston’s voters. They circulated petitions to put the ordinance on the ballot for a referendum. They spoke out in their congregations. They heard sermons from their pastors. They spoke in their fellowship halls and Sunday school classes.

All of these activities were hallmarks of the Civil Rights movement that arose in this country to put an end to Jim Crow injustices. All of these now-threatened activities were employed by Civil Rights advocates throughout the South. Americans are justifiably proud of how we came together to reclaim our American heritage in the 1950s and 1960s.

Visitors to Washington, D.C. can see the timeless words of the First Amendment etched in marble in foot-high letters on the wall of the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The rights protected by the First Amendment cannot be abridged by Houston’s City Council, either. And yet, Mayor Parker and her cohorts are doing that very thing.

Notice the so-called “progressives” in Houston are establishing a de facto religion of tolerant intolerance while seeking to prohibit the free exercise of religious dissidents. They are trying to suppress pastors’ and lay peoples’ freedom of speech and press.

Most egregiously, they are suppressing the First Amendment freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances. One of Mayor Parker’s cohorts, the City Attorney, zealously attacked the more than 50,000 petition signatures submitted by opponents of the Parker ordinance. Only 17,000 valid signatures are required to place a challenged measure on the ballot for repeal by Houston voters. Mayor Parker’s compliant City Attorney managed to keep striking signatures until he had whittled the list down to under 17,000.

Question: What standards did officials apply to the disqualification of petition signatures? Were those the same standards that had been in force for the submission of other petitions, such as those submitted for the election of Mayor Parker and her fellow liberals on the City Council? Or were these standards applied only this year and only to petitions urging the repeal of the Parker ordinance?

We are reminded not of American election law fairly and openly applied to all sides. Instead, this process reminds us of what Soviet dictator Josef Stalin said about democratic elections in Poland: “What matters is not who votes; what matters is who counts votes;” It stretches credulity to think that twice as many petition signatures in Houston were invalid as were valid. That is a rejection rate far beyond anything we have seen since the days of Jim Crow.

To make matters even worse in Houston, the Mayor and her cohorts are trying to subpoena records of conversations, speeches, articles, letters to the editor, email communications, and telephone messaging by the opponents of the Parker ordinance. This is a clear attempt to intimidate Americans and prevent their exercising their Civil Rights.

Only after an international uproar did the Mayor and the City Council back down from their demand that Houston pastors, priests, and rabbis submit their sermon texts to the government. For what? Censorship? Fines? Threats to their tax-exempt status?

In 1775, the King of England did not demand sermon texts from American pastors, either, but he issued Writs of Assistance to royal officials in the American colonies. Those writs gave them the power to hunt for all the things listed in the Houston subpoenas. (Well, maybe not the emails or telephone logs, but he would gotten around to them, too!)

For such violations of Americans’ Civil Rights, our Founding Fathers denounced King George III as a Tyrant. And to prevent just such abuses by government, we adopted the Bill of Rights. It’s high time to put the arrogant actions of Houston’s Mayor and City Council on notice: You’ve overstepped your authority. This is how Tyranny starts. As James Madison said: “The people are right to take alarm at the first advance on their liberties.”

Photo credit: Archives Foundation (Flickr Commons)

Ken Blackwell_2Ken Blackwell is a senior fellow at the Family Research Council and the American Civil Rights Union, and on the board of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

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