Friday, October 31, 2014

HOUSTON HUBBUB


         It’s funny how stories get garbled in the retelling. Someone asked me the other day if  I had heard the news about the City of Houston passing an ordinance requiring all clergy in the city to file copies of their sermons with City Hall.

         That sounded pretty preposterous to me. Certainly it would be an ordinance which would be challenged by the ACLU.  And by just about everyone else. If there is any place where freedom of speech should be sacrosanct, it would be in the pulpit.

         It turns out that the facts are not quite so far off the wall. Here’s what happened: The Houston City Council passed an ordinance they call the HERO – an acronym or Human Equal Rights Ordinance. It contains a long list of categories which may not be discriminated against in places of public accommodation. Included on the list is a category called ‘gender identity.’

         The ordinance bans discrimination in the use of public toilets, showers, dressing rooms and the like. Needless to say a number of the folks in Houston took issue with the wisdom of HERO in that regard, and they promptly circulated petitions asking for a referendum to revoke the ordinance.

         The City fathers, and mothers, pushed back and refused to put the issue on the ballot, claiming that the petitions were irregular for various reasons.  In essence, they claimed that the petitions were forgeries, or were not properly certified by the people who circulated them.

         Predictably, the petition circulators started a lawsuit asking the court to require the city clerk to put their issue on the ballot. This is where the story gets garbled. The city attorney apparently believes that the petitions were fraudulent, that they were manufactured by a few dissidents who signed multiple voters’ names illegally. He also believes, so it seems, that a number of local pastors not only preached against HERO, but actively encouraged their congregations to circulate petitions and perhaps to manufacture illegal petitions.

         And so the City subpoenaed the sermons, writings, letters, notes, etc. of number of activist pastors, in the hopes of turning up evidence that the petitions were forged.

         Frankly, that was not a wise or even practical thing to do. Checking the validity of petitions is essentially footwork or clerical work. It involves comparing the signatures on the petitions with the signatures of the voters in the City Clerk’s office. If they don’t match, you go out and ask the voter if he or she signed the petition. If they didn’t, you get an affidavit and take it to court.  

          Anyway, the demand to hand over the text of their sermons gave the opponents of the HERO a First Amendment issue which quickly went viral as conservatives delighted in telling how liberals were thwarting the First Amendment.

         It seems that, in these partisan times, there is an oversupply of credulity toward anything that, if true, would embarrass or diminish the other side.

         I recently received an email asking whether a story published by the Daily Currant to the effect that a Muslim shopkeeper in Dearborn was requiring his employees to wear hijabs and threatening to cut off their hands if they steal any of his merchandise, was actually true.

         I had never heard of the Daily Currant, but the story seemed so egregious that I looked it up. Turns out the Daily Currant is a satirical newspaper that delights in making conservatives look foolish.

         I should have known.  The word “Current” is often connected with newspapers, since they report current events. A currAnt, however, is just a kind of fruit.

         The latest fruity offering from the Daily Currant is a satire describing an executive order by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie imposing a “Holloween Quarantine” based in the ebola scare, threatening to arrest kids who go begging tonight.

         Funny stuff, especially if you are a Democrat. Funnier yet when some of your Republican friends believe it.

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