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Houses of Right-Wing Worship

A group of Texans say Governor Rick Perry's recent signing of anti-abortion and anti-gay legislation on the grounds of a church school is decidedly un-Christian.
 
 
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In a ceremony that felt more like a church service than a political event, Texas Governor Rick Perry chose a Sunday afternoon to sign anti-abortion rights and anti-gay legislation inside the gym of the Calvary Christian Academy, an evangelical school in Fort Worth, Texas. The ceremony was filled with praise for "pro-family, pro-life" groups and religious references.

"I don't get confused about where God is," said Perry. "He's everywhere. He's over there, he's here. Matter of fact, we could be doing this in the parking lot of Wal-Mart and God would be there."

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, and Don Wildmon, president and founder of the American Family Association, two ardent opponents of gay rights, joined Perry on stage. Their remarks received several standing ovations and shouts of "Amen!" from a diverse crowd of about 1,000.

"We may be on the grounds of a Christian school today, but our message speaks to all who believe in standing up for the unborn, all who cherish strong traditional families regardless of party, of ethnicity or creed," said Perry. "We're here because a quiet majority decided to have their voice heard and heard loudly, that understand that families are the building blocks of civilization, who recognize that marriage must be defended because it is the glue that binds the very fabric of society." After Governor Perry signed the bills, the crowd belted out "God Bless America."

The abortion bill requires girls under 18 to obtain their parents' consent before obtaining an abortion. Perry also signed a bill -- although his signature wasn't required -- to put a gay marriage ban on the November ballot. Texas state law already prohibits same-sex marriages, but supporters of the amendment fear the law could be struck down in court. Don Sachs says he's in favor of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage because "it's a sin according to the Bible."

"If you want to use the Bible and ban gay marriage, then ban divorce. The Bible says that. Of course, they're not doing that," says Reverend Michael Piazza, Dean of the Cathedral of Hope, a gay and lesbian church in Dallas. "What they're doing is trying to use the Bible to ban gay marriages and the Bible doesn't say anything about that. We do that to explain the hypocrisy of the whole thing and force them to explain how it is that they'll take a stand on one issue and ignore others."

Piazza was one of the 350 protesters who greeted ceremony attendees with signs reading, "Hate Is Not A Family Value," "I'm a Tolerant Christian," "Don't Ruin God's House" and "Separation Of Church And State."

In a letter to Governor Perry, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) warned that the event exploits a house of worship for partisan political purposes and could jeopardize the congregation's tax-exempt status. The group has already filed one complaint with the IRS. "We might file another complaint," said Jeremy Leaming, spokesman with AU. "The use of the language was cleary to use a church and it's resources to help a political campaign. It's highly disconcerting."

Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based nonprofit that counters the religious right, criticized the right-wing's use of churches to spread their propaganda."Why is Governor Perry acting like he was only elected to serve the Christians in Texas?" Miller asks. "As far as I know, he was elected to serve everyone. The only question I hope is being asked by people of faith is, when will politicians stop misuing our places of worship in order to promote their own campaigns?"

In response, Perry said, "It [wouldn't] make any difference where we signed this piece of legislation. If we'd been in a Wal-Mart parking lot, they'd still be griping about it."

Separation of church and state isn't important to Perry supporter Eloise Kennedy. "I go to church, and I'm a member of the state, so how can I separate myself? There shouldn't be a separation," she says. "I loved today's event because it put God first and thats what we're here for. God first, life second."

The event was held in the gym instead of the nearby church sanctuary to deflect complaints from protesters like Mike Herrington, a sixth generation Texan and member of Soulforce, a group dedicated to changing the minds of religious leaders who engage in anti-homosexual campaigns. "Baptists, which I used to be, believe strongly in the separation of church and state and that's what's so contradictory about this whole thing," he says. "You can hardly call this separation of church and state."

Many of the protesters said Texans who live in small towns are beginning to speak out and get involved in peaceful demonstrations. "There have been three special sessions to fix education finance, and all they've managed to do is get a bill passed to eliminate gay marriage that they can come sign in a church," says Lisa Earley, a fifth grade teacher from Grand Prairie, Texas. "I happen to be straight. I'm out here because this is wrong."

In addition to educators, nursing home advocates were also heavily represented at the event. Nursing homes in Texas haven't had a rate increase in six years, according to Cheryl Killian, owner of three small nursing homes and administrator at the Sycamore Care Center in Fort Worth. "We're about 22 percent underfunded right now, per patient, per day," she says. "People are dying right now in Texas because of the underfunding. They're getting bed sores and laying in their own waste because we can't afford to keep on going. I've been doing this for 30 years and it's never been this bad."

Killian, one of the few on the street who actually voted for Perry, said her fellow Republicans would rather sit in a church than face reality. "It's not their issue. Maybe they're afraid of speaking out," she said.

Republican Kathy Holt says too much taxpayer money is being wasted on administration costs in education and nursing homes. "The church should be responsible for taking care of the elderly," she says. "I'd be more than happy to write that woman a check. In fact, I bet I could get that entire church to make a donation."

When I asked Janet Waterman to respond to Cheryl Killian's concerns about nursing homes, she said, "People have been dying for years. What about the babies who are dying from abortion?"

Because Republicans currently dominate Texas politics, protesters say they're often discouraged, but Sunday's event gives them hope. "I have not seen something like this in quite some time," says Bryan Hartmann, executive director and political consultant for the Democratic Arlington Political Action Committee, a group that began just three weeks ago. "This proves that people are fed up. They're tired and they're hurting. People aren't going to tolerate this much longer and I think that goes for moderate Republicans as well."

Rose Aguilar is a San Francisco-based journalist gathering stories from people living in states that voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush. Track her journey at Stories in America .