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In the controversy over the subpoena issued to local pastors in Houston who opposed an anti-discrimination ordinance, it is wise to heed the rhetoric of its defenders even as the subpoenas have evoked national protest. We had two prime cases in the Wall Street Journal from last Thursday. The article bears the title, “Mayor Tries to Calm Pastor Uproar,” but you have to wonder about how Mayor Parker goes about doing so.

The second paragraph of the WSJ story states, “’I don’t want to have a national debate about freedom of religion when my whole purpose was to defend a strong and wonderful and appropriate city ordinance,’ said Ms. Parker, a Democrat and the city’s first openly gay mayor.”

This is a remarkable statement. It is either astoundingly obtuse or brazenly narrow-minded. How can she believe that a subpoena issued to five pastors demanding everything they have written about the ordinance, Mayor Parker, homosexuality, or gender will not raise profound issues of religious freedom? Is the assertion that I-just-wanted-to-push-a-good-policy naiveté or mendacity? Either way, we mark a gross divide between the benign motive and the brutal legal tactic.

We note, too, that the Mayor’s characterization of the ordinance as supremely altruistic casts the objectors as clear misanthropists, their petition to repeal the ordinance horrible and inappropriate.

Later in the story, a “Houston lawyer and gay-rights activist” has a comment on the affair likewise interesting for its verbiage. He supports the mayor’s decision to narrow the subpoenas, mainly because the debate “has detracted from an ordinance that is long overdue” (those are the reporters’ words, not his). The time factor, “overdue,” is an implicit appeal to a teleological model, as if progressivist rules such as this ordinance follow the inevitable march of time and objections to them cross the proper course of History.

His actual words reinforce the point: “Houston needs to grow up and join the major cities in the country.” So, anti-discrimination ordinances aren’t just a sign of historical progress. They follow a process of maturity, too. The pastors and other dissidents need to escape their adolescence and join the adult world.

The rhetoric is cheap and easy. We don’t need any discussion of details. Let’s just grow up and get with it and do the right thing.

Compare those words to the spokesman for a conservative legal group, who told the WSJ, “The mayor really had no choice but to withdraw these subpoenas, which should never have been served in the first place.” No claim of purity here, and no back-handed insult, either.

One can only hope that the verbal tactics of each side influence public opinion regarding the parties. From what I’ve seen, the balance of civility falls heavily on the dissidents. 

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