Outspoken Pastor fails in attempt to recall El Paso mayor over Gay marriage bill
Pastor Tom Brown wants homosexuals to repent and turn to Christ. He certainly does not want them to be given taxpayer-financed health benefits.
Brown, the charismatic leader of Word of Life Church, an independent evangelical congregation of about 1,500 members, is on a mission to ensure that the domestic partners of city workers no longer get health insurance. He is spearheading an effort to oust the mayor and two City Council members who supported an ordinance allowing the city to pay for the health benefits of unmarried employees’ domestic partners — gay and straight.
‘They want to reward fornicators, and they want to reward homosexuals,’ Brown said in an interview, his voice booming with indignation as he occasionally pumped his fist for emphasis.
The bitter battle over the ordinance and the resulting campaign to get rid of Mayor John Cook, along with the council members, Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega, is dividing a city that prides itself as a liberal Democratic stronghold. For some, it is a symbolic struggle over El Paso’s identity. For others in this deeply religious, and largely Latino community, the fight is one that city leaders brought upon themselves and have badly bungled.
‘These are the things that define a city, and they’re worth fighting for,’ Byrd said.
The battle over health benefits for same-sex couples began in 2009, when the council approved a budget item that expanded coverage to unmarried domestic partners of city employees. Byrd said the move stemmed from a conversation she and other council members had with a gay high school student who said he did not feel welcome in El Paso.
The action drew immediate fire from religious leaders. Brown and a small group of angry protesters showed up at a council meeting less than a week later, quoting Bible verses and threatening to initiate a voter referendum.
‘The only thing I could think of at the time was, If you do this, you’re going to lose the good will of the city,’ Brown said. His words, he said, were prophetic.
Within a few months, Brown and his supporters launched a petition campaign urging the council to adopt an ordinance preventing the city from giving health benefits to domestic partners. The council rebuffed the petition.
‘They were trying to get us to legalize discrimination against gay people,’ Byrd said.
Undeterred, Brown and his supporters gathered enough signatures to force a voter referendum on whether the city should be barred from giving health benefits to unmarried couples.
As the November 2010 election drew near, local religious leaders offered free weddings to unmarried heterosexual couples working for the city. They offered to help gay city employees find counseling that the religious activists said would rid them of their homosexuality.
Barney Field, the executive director of El Paso for Jesus, warned in the El Paso Times that the ordinance was making the city vulnerable to spillover violence from the raging drug war in neighboring Juarez. ‘El Paso is in a precarious position right now,” Field said.
To his credit, Cook, who is far from an Atheist, has challenged local churches head on regarding this issue:
Cook, who was elected in 2005, often quotes scripture, and his standard response when asked how he is doing is a tranquil, ‘I’m blessed. How are you?’ But in conversation about the domestic partner benefits debate, Cook’s temperament becomes saltier. Recounting a recent speech he gave to local pastors, he said he asked who among them was without sin. None raised their hand.
‘Since you’re a bunch of damn sinners, I shouldn’t provide services to any of you,’ he told the group, adding that he didn’t see where Jesus ‘told us we were supposed to judge one another.’
Things took a twist when the Mayor and council voted to overturn the voter approved ban…
Cook and a majority of the City Council voted in June to reject the voter-approved ordinance. They said their decision was about fairness, undoing an effort that had gone too far and sending a message to businesses and to other communities about El Paso’s values. ‘When you look at cities that are thriving, those cities promote a culture of inclusiveness and openness,’ Ortega said.
Overturning the voter referendum outraged Brown and his supporters, who decided to launch a recall effort. ‘The mayor does not care about the taxpayers,’ Brown said in the den of his east El Paso home. ‘The mayor does not care about the will of the people.’
Last week, his group, El Pasoans for Traditional Family Values, submitted to the city clerk more than enough petition signatures to guarantee a recall vote on the mayor and two council members (two other council members who voted for domestic partner benefits were not included because their terms already ended). Former Democratic state Rep. Norma Chavez said people were angry that the city wanted to provide benefits for unmarried couples, but they were even more upset that the council overturned the ordinance voters approved.
Cook filed a lawsuit to stop the petition effort, arguing that Brown had gathered signatures in his church and at local businesses, a practice he argues is prohibited under state law.
The recall effort is focused on the Mayor and 2 council members. They are not willing to go without a fight. Neither, it seems, is Pastor Brown.
All three of the targeted city leaders said they plan to fight against the recall election because they want to send a message to El Pasoans and to others that the city is progressive and inclusive.
Brown is steeling himself for the coming battle, too, and he said he is determined to see to it that Cook and the others are driven out and that the city stops providing benefits to gays.
‘Homosexuality is being trumpeted as a moral activity,’ he said. ‘How will they ever repent and turn to Christ?’
It bears repeating here that the city ordinance was meant to extend benefits to domestic partners. Meaning homosexual and heterosexual couples. Despite this, Pastor Brown and others seem content with presenting it solely as a gay rights issue.
Here’s some more info on Brown’s views and the continuing benefits battle in El Paso…
‘Government should not be using tax dollars to endorse a social agenda,’ Brown said Feb. 6 by telephone. The 2010 ballot measure, which also affected retirees, foster children and other nonfamily dependents of municipal employees, passed 55 percent to 45 percent, with about 20,300 voting in favor. In June, Cook joined four council members to repeal it in a 5-4 vote.
‘Once they overturned what the people had decided, that was a cause for a recall,’ said Brown, whose website includes an article entitled ‘Homosexuality: Its cause and cure.’ He said the council betrayed the will of the people. ‘The highest civil right that all of us possess is the right to vote, and our City Council took away our right to do that.’
An April 14 recall election may cost as much as $1.3 million, City Clerk Richarda Momsen said. That’s about 38 times the estimated $34,000 cost of providing benefits to the domestic partners of 19 unmarried workers who were affected by the law.
Or, to put it even more simply, a cost of $34 000 is 97% cheaper than $1.3 million. It’s astounding to see how much money and resources are being employed to fight the council’s ruling on this issue.
As it stands now though, the recall election won’t be happening anytime soon…
The Eighth Court of Appeals on Friday unanimously ruled against Brown and ordered the recall petitions be decertified.
‘Having instructed the City Clerk to decertify the petitions, no election thereon may be called or held,’ the court ordered.
Brown and his church helped organize the recall effort, violating a law prohibiting corporations from making political contributions to recall elections, said Mark Walker, Cook’s lawyer.
Brown said he would appeal the case to the Texas Supreme Court. Citing the appeals court’s unanimous ruling, Walker said the high court was unlikely to take the case.
The lawsuit was thrown out because Brown was openly using his church to gather signatures and energize people for the recall vote. Don’t expect him or the Mayor to go quietly on this. Most likely, Brown will try to mobilize people again, not using his church this time, in an attempt to get the Mayor recalled.
This issue is not going away anytime soon. Not in El Paso, not anywhere else in America. The wars going on over social issues are getting nastier and costlier. At what point do we look at ourselves in the mirror and say: “You know, maybe this isn’t the best way to handle things?”