Road to ‘The Response’ marked by months of protest and resistance

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Monday, August 08, 2011 at 4:37 pm

Since Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced his plans to host a prayer and fasting event earlier this summer — one that would be primarily sponsored by an extremist evangelical organization designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-gay hate group — criticism swelled in two directions­.

Some said the move blew past separation of church and state, while others condemned the governor for aligning himself with the controversial American Family Association and contentious figures of the far edge of the religious right. Oftentimes, these two points of conflict overlapped among those speaking out in opposition to the rally, opening the door to a firestorm of objection.

A federal lawsuit filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which was ultimately dismissed, sought to keep Perry from promoting or even attending the event and argued the gathering constitutes “extraordinary disregard” of the Establishment Clause. An ACLU open records request aimed to expose the use of taxpayer funds in coordinating the rally; after 700 pages of documents were released, the civil liberties group said the answer remained opaque.

While attempts at litigation and information seeking yielded little results, they sent a strong signal to Perry and other governors who may be tempted to mimic “The Response” and join with what many called “fringe extremists”: they can expect plenty of resistance along the way.

Perry’s prayer rally attracted unflattering press attention among national media not only in terms of day-of coverage but in the lead up to the event as well, including outlets likeCNN and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show, which spotlighted controversial event endorsers and many of the incendiary comments made by participants.

The story made international news too, as British newspaper The Guardian traced the rally’s backlash. Some critics pointed to the fact that nearly all the 49 other governors Perry invited declined to attend. In the end, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, who at one point appeared to be backing out of his RSVP amid outrage in his home state, delivered a short speech and Gov. Rick Scott of Florida sent a videotaped message, broadcast during the rally.

The list of discriminatory commentary targeting LGBT, African-American and the non-Christian communities — which grew by the day as more controversial figures were added to the event agenda — shocked observers who questioned why Perry, a potential presidential candidate, would choose to partner with a hate group.

The remarks from some prominent organizers and “endorsers,” well documented by Right Wing Watch, included suggesting a link between the cause of the Holocaust with homosexuals, arguing Muslims should not be granted First Amendment rights, advocating that all immigrants convert to Christianity and claiming that as a result of welfare, African-American women “rut like rabbits.”

Grassroots and LGBT rights groups clamored to highlight the incendiary comments and actions from the AFA, and religious groups pointed to the event’s exclusion of other faiths, as the Christian-based event focused on Jesus’ teachings.

From Jewish lawmaker Rep. Elliott Naishtat, who told the Texas Independent in June that Perry’s event would make some faiths less publicly accepted, to the Houston Clergy Council, a coalition of religious leaders opposed to church-state violations, condemnation came from a wide swath of groups.

Organizations like The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Anti-Defamation League of Austin, The Log Cabin Republicans, Equality Texas and the Texas Freedom Network — who collected some 10,000 signatures for an open lettertelling Perry to “Stop Using Faith as a Political Weapon” — remained steadfast in their disapproval of the event.

At a Baptist church in North Houston, groups gathered Friday night to oppose “The Response.” (Mary Tuma/Texas Independent)

‘Pray the Hate Away’
The day before the event, the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State hosted an alternate rally featuring faith leaders from the Muslim, Jewish and Hindu communities, who stressed the need for religious inclusion in the Christian-based prayer rally. The counter gathering filled pews at a Baptist church in North Houston, where Texans cheered for diversity and respect for all sexual and denominational backgrounds.

 

Taking to the streets on Saturday, LGBT rights and secular groups braved the Houston heat outside Reliant Stadium to protest what they regarded as a divisive, exclusionary and hateful event. Organizers like GetEQUAL, a statewide LGBT civil rights organization, drew public school teachers, gay Christians and atheists, among others to rally on a sidewalk, chant slogans, hold up protest signs and wave rainbow colored flags, in front of the stadium housing thousands who came to pray at “The Response.”

To exhibit the consequences of bigotry directed at the gay community, GetEQUAL Texas led a faux funeral procession, equipped with a coffin showcasing the names of LGBT youth who have committed suicide as a result of hatred expressed by groups like AFA.

“Our Governor invited, and therefore endorsed, groups to preach hate in our state,” said Michael Diviesti, leader of the state chapter in a release issued before the demonstration. “American Family Association and the Family Research Council empower the bullies that are driving our youth to suicide and the murderers who kill out of hatred and ignorance. We will no longer allow our community to be hurt in silence.”

Demonstrators gathered outside Reliant Stadium during “The Response.” (Mary Tuma/Texas Independent)

One member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Staise Gonzalez, recounted her dismay at learning the lawsuit filed against Perry for the event had been dismissed. Gonzalez said she still believed the Perry-led gathering was a violation of the Establishment Clause and a breach of citizens’ First Amendment rights. Gonzalez, who served as a plaintiff in the suit, said they are still weighing their options for responding to the dismissal.

She also decried what she called Perry’s hypocritical disregard for Texans’ basic needs, like attacks on female reproductive rights made this Legislative session, suggesting addressing those issues should be the focus of any large-scale event.

Ernest Ingram and Jacob Eiler, a bi-racial Christian gay couple, came to protest AFA’s anti-gay rhetoric and actions.

“We watched the propaganda distributed by the AFA and we don’t think it’s appropriate for a presidential hopeful to align with a group like this,” said Eiler. “This should be reason alone to make sure he doesn’t get the Republican nomination.”

Protester Beth Moore said the prayer event was indicative of the religious-right movement’s main agenda — a full-scale push to impose their beliefs on non-Christians. Moore said she hoped others could see through the governor’s true intentions.

“I’ve intimately known the religious right for decades now and I understand they are not loyal to our country or our constitution, they are only loyal to the absolute truth they force on others,” said Moore. “Rick Perry has involved himself in this prayer event for monetary and political gain and I am here to protest this attempt at state religion.”

Devon Caing, a Houstonian, said Perry’s motives were not driven by religion but by politics. As a Catholic, Caing chose to hold up signs in opposition to the nearby prayer event rather than attend due to what she considered to be its religious exclusivity and failure to embody Christian principles.

“He has insisted that this isn’t about himself and his possible run for president, but he is clearly putting on a showcase to better his chances of winning,” said Caing. “This is not what religion is about, it is about acceptance and this event is destroying the principles of religion.”

Meanwhile in Austin, the Texas Capitol transformed into a site of protest too, as U.S. Congressman Lloyd Doggett took aim at Perry, warning Texans that if the governor were to announce a presidential bid he would make it his mission to “sound the alarm,” the Houston Chronicle reported.

“I am announcing today that, if Rick Perry enters the race for President of the United States, I will, with your help, make it my mission to sound the alarm in every corner of our great country[…] America, don’t let Rick Perry mess with you the way he messed with Texas,” said Doggett.

Mary Tuma/Texas Independent

Mary Tuma/Texas Independent

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