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Anti-Gay Pastor Targets Gay-Friendly El Paso Officials for Recall

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Oct 4, 2011

An anti-gay evangelical pastor in El Paso, Texas, has taken his war on same-sex families to the city's mayor and city council by leading a push to recall officials who favored an ordinance to provide health benefits to the domestic partners of gay, as well as straight, city employees.

The long-brewing showdown has its roots in a decision by the city last year to extend health benefits to the families of fewer than 20 unmarried straight and gay municipal employees--17 of them heterosexual, and only two of them in same-sex relationships. That action resulted in a ballot initiative to yank any such benefits from unmarried couples in which one partner works for the city. The ballot initiative passed last November, but the effects were felt far beyond the handful of employees it targeted, threatening the benefits of over 150 people due to the wording of the ballot measure.

Gay news blog noted in an Oct. 2 article that the ballot measure, which passed with 55 percent of the vote, also yanked benefits from retired police and firefighters, a result that the anti-gay cleric behind the measure did not seem to rue.

A legal challenge ensued, and U.S. District Judge Frank Montalvo put implementation of the ordinance on hold earlier this year while the City Council deliberated putting a new ordinance before voters that would specifically address whether GLBT couples would be targeted for loss of benefits.

But Montalvo resolved that challenge when he eventually ruled on the case, which had questioned whether the ordinance was constitutional. The judge acknowledged that the ordinance passed by voters might have had implications that the voters had not considered.

"This is an example of how direct democracy can have unexpected consequences," the judge said. In his ruling, Montalvo noted that the ordinance "distinguishes between (city employees and their families) and everybody else," such as elected officials and retired people, who are not employed by the city.

But the fact that so many more people would lose their benefits than the 19 individuals who had gotten them via domestic partnerships still troubled city officials.

"He said that if we were to amend the ordinance now just to exclude domestic partners, he would find that that was targeting a small class of people and he would have to overturn it," Mayor John Cook told the El Paso Times last May. "It doesn't even give us an option to go back into the ordinance now and say this ordinance is only to deny benefits to domestic partners."

"There's still an option in regard to contract employees, but the civilian employees are out in the cold," said El Paso Municipal Police Officers' Association President Sgt. Ron Martin said. "The possibility is still there for (the City Council) to do the right thing. They still can change things for the better."

The city council attempted to do just that on June 14, with a vote to extend those benefits once again, prompting an anti-gay local cleric--the same one who had organized the ballot initiative--to vow that he would seek the recall of two council members as well as Mayor John Cook, who cast a tie-breaking vote when the city council split down the middle, with 4 votes in favor and 4 against.

Two outgoing members of the city council, Beto O'Rourke and Rachel Quintana, sided with those who wanted to see the benefits restored. Incoming councilor Michiel Noe said that he would have voted no.

"Although I think everyone should have benefits, I would have respected the will of the voters," Noe told the El Paso Times. "Now, if the courts had decided that was illegal, then I would have voted according to what the ruling said. But they said that the vote was legal, so again I would respect the will of the voters."

Brown was not the only anti-gay cleric to condemn health benefits for same-sex and unmarried heterosexual families.

"Homosexual acts are a grave depravity," Rev. Michael Rodriguez, a Roman Catholic, declared. Rodriguez went on to say, "One of the great things about our Catholic faith is that we have a final authority on Earth."

That sense of moral assuredness, coupled with distaste for gays and "fornicators," appear to be driving the repeal effort as it continues. An Oct. 1 New York Times article reported on Brown's ongoing political jihad against GLBT-supportive city officials.

"They want to reward fornicators, and they want to reward homosexuals," Brown told the Times, "his voice booming with indignation as he pumped his fist for emphasis," the article said.

The Times noted that just before voters weighed in on the anti-gay referendum last November, the city's clerics tried to coax straight domestic partners into marriage by offering to officiate over their weddings free of charge.

They had a different approach when it came to gays: They wanted to send people in same-sex relationships to reparative therapy, a widely debunked practice that claims gays can be "cured" and converted into heterosexuals. The practice is rooted in religious belief, rather than sound medicine, mental health experts say, and can cause those who undergo the process deep and damaging shame when they are not miraculously turned straight.

Anti-gay activists also claimed that unless domestic partners were denied health benefits, gang-related violence from the nearby city of Juarez would overwhelm El Paso. (The New York Times article did not mention any specifics of how the two issues were purportedly related.)

For her part, Council Member Byrd was unperturbed.

"These are the things that define a city, and they're worth fighting for," Byrd told the Times. Byrd added that she supported the ordinance to extend benefits to domestic partners after speaking with a gay high schooler who told her of how he didn't feel welcome in his own city due to anti-gay bias.

"They were trying to get us to legalize discrimination against gay people," Byrd said of a petition circulated by Brown and other anti-gay activists to pressure the city council into adopting an ordinance that would target gays for specific exclusion of people in domestic partnerships.

For his part, Mayor Cook, who speaks in the language of the devout with frequent references to the Bible, supported the benefits plan, unlike the city's anti-gay clerics. In a recent speech with El Paso's religious leaders, Cook asked who in the room was "without sin," and no one answered.

"Since you're a bunch of damn sinners, I shouldn't provide services to any of you," Cook declared.

But in this case, spiritual matters are tempered with more than a dash of temporal politics. Pastor Brown told a group of his followers that Cook has disregarded "taxpayers" and ignored "the will of the people" by voting to restore the benefits.

El Pasoans for Traditional Family Values, the group that Brown spearheads, has managed to gather the needed signatures to bring about the recall vote, the Times reported. The petition was submitted last week.

Meanwhile, El Paso' gay community have not raised any similar ruckus in defense of the mayor and the city councilors, in part because to them, unlike to the clerics who seek to deny them equal treatment, "being gay is not an issue," in the words of Tony Ramos, who is active in AIDS prevention programs.

But a push from the gay community may yet materialize, Ramos said, telling the Times that the city's gay populace were "tired and they are fed up."

Meantime, Brown is not letting up. For him it's a matter of forcing salvation on sinners who would refuse to accept it on their own, the article suggested.

"Homosexuality is being trumpeted as a moral activity," Brown said of the health benefits measure. Unless gays are deprived of such benefits, he added, "How will they ever repent and turn to Christ?"

The two viewpoints define the city's deep divisions over the issue, the article suggested. "For some, it is a symbolic struggle over El Paso's identity," read the New York Times piece. "For others in this deeply religious and largely Latino city, the fight is one that city leaders brought upon themselves and have badly bungled."

The recall election will most likely take place next May.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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