Free exercise or state intrusion? Houston Chronicle's report on new Texas law is ... well, you know

In breaking news, two political supporters of a new Texas law protecting sermons from government subpoena reportedly used a public event to tout their approval of the measure.

As they used to say in tee-vee land, "Film at 11." (Well, video at least: see clip above.)

Texas' State Bill 24, officially signed into law May 19 by Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, bars governments from forcing a cleric to turn over sermons in a civil or administrative proceeding or to compel a clergyman's testimony.

Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, also a Republican, took to the platform at Grace Church Woodlands, in a Houston suburb, to praise the new measure, with Abbott ceremonially signing a copy of the new law.

This sent the Houston Chronicle into action, ramping up the Kellerism beginning in the first sentence. Read this admittedly long-ish excerpt to get a sense of the reporting:

The state's top two elected officials took to the pulpit Sunday, preaching the righteousness of conservative gender norms – and hitting on several other red meat Republican issues – before the governor signed a copy of a new law protecting sermons at a Woodlands church. ...
To mark the occasion at Grace Community Church in the Woodlands, Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott joined pastor Steve Riggle and three of the four others whose sermons were subpoenaed in 2014 by the city of Houston, igniting a political fire storm [sic] for then-mayor Annise Parker.
Riggle and the so-called "Houston Five" were fighting a proposed nondiscrimination ordinance, mostly over objections to the rights it would have extended to gay and transgender people. Parker and the city sought the sermons amid a legal battle over a petition drive led by the pastors.
The move sparked outrage nationwide from people who saw it as intimidation of the church and infringement on religious liberties. Parker said the city only wanted evidence related to any instructions the pastors may have given on how to conduct the petition drive. But she acknowledged the subpoena was overly broad and withdrew the request for sermons.
The officials' trip to the Woodlands was a celebratory tour of sorts, returning not only to where the issue originated but to deeply conservative territory where 72 percent of Montgomery County voters chose President Donald Trump in November, and where religion and politics easily mix.
"You are fighters for freedom," Abbott told the congregation, which is an offshoot of Grace's megachurch campus in Houston.

The Chronicle doesn't remind readers that the now-former Houston mayor, Parker, was a Democrat and a leading advocate for the disputed "Houston Equal Rights Ordinance," or HERO, whose enactment sparked the petition drive and the sermons. Among other measures, HERO would have allowed transgendered persons to file an administrative action against organizations where they were barred from using the bathroom of their choice. Religious facilities were exempt, however.

Enacting HERO led to a petition drive to place the measure on a city-wide ballot. Abbott, who was Texas attorney general at the time, opposed the Parker administration's attempt to subpoena sermons, something the mayor later dropped.

Now it's possible Chronicle readers have full recall of the ins-and-outs of the 2014 battle over HERO, which eventually died at the polls, but it would have been nice to have a bit more context besides this:

The equal rights ordinance would have banned 15 categories of discrimination, including based on gender identity, but made no mention of public bathrooms. It was already illegal to assault someone in a restroom, but conservatives rallied votes against the measure by playing on fears of attacks. A campaign ad famously depicted a little girl at the hands of a male attacker in a bathroom stall.

But the paper was all too happy to focus on the dozen-or-fewer protestors outside the venue where the bill was signed:

Others found Sunday's ceremony inherently disturbing for its mix of politics and faith. To be sure, the church service sounded at times like a campaign stop, with plenty of glad handing. [sic]
A group of about 10 people held up signs by the church entrance off the North Freeway, protesting a breach of church and state separation.
"Our forefathers escaped tyrants that were heads of churches in Europe," said B.P. Herrington, who held up a poster that said "religion is a private matter."
Patrick and Abbott "should realize they are not defenders of faith as the queen of England is," he said. "They are servants of the people."
Herrington, a music professor and an Episcopalian, said the officials treat the churches as de facto political action committees.

I suppose conflict remains an attractive element of news reportage, but the Chronicle spares us such minor bits of context such as who organized this protest or why "a group of about 10 people" merit about as much exposure in the story as the principal participants. Of course, if it is your determination -- or that of the editors -- that the position taken in HERO is the righteous one, then "balancing" the pro-clergy sentiments of Abbott and Patrick with the comments of "a music professor and an Episcopalian" seems just about right.

Except that it's not really journalism.

The need here is context, context, context: The reason the sermon subpoenas were threatening, as the noted University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock told me at the time, is because they threatened the pastors' free exercise of religion:

"Free speech is really the main argument," Laycock said in a telephone interview. "These subpoenas seem designed to intimidate and harass" those opposed to the Houston ordinance. He said if the legal discovery process is being "used to penalize these people ... that clearly seems a penalty" on their free speech.
He added, "I think government issuing subpoenas for sermons ought to ring alarm bells for free speech and free exercise."

While focusing on a small gaggle of nondescript protestors, the Houston Chronicle report fails to provide context that would let readers better judge the need for the law.

One more thing: the Chronicle quoted Abbott as saying Sunday's pro-forma exercise might have been the first time a Texas law was signed in a church. Not exactly, as the Texas Tribune pointed readers to a 2005 account in The New York Times about Texas' then-governor Rick Perry signing "measures to restrict abortion and prohibit same-sex marriage" in a ceremony at the gymnasium of an evangelical Christian school. Again, gentle reader, context matters.

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