Last week, HAPC held a news conference to demonstrate the unity within the racially, denominationally, and politically diverse coalition opposed to the Equal Rights Ordinance (ERO), which makes sexuality and gender identity protected classes. Pastors representing 150 churches gathered at the 70,000-member Second Baptist Church on Oct. 7 to make clear their opposition to Proposition 1 and urge Christians to do their civic duty and vote.
(WNS)–The diverse group of pastors who fought a year-long battle to get a controversial anti-discrimination ordinance on the upcoming ballot won a seemingly impossible legal fight with outgoing Mayor Annise Parker. But the most daunting task may still lie ahead—getting Houstonians, especially members of their congregations, to vote.
The Houston Area Pastors Council (HAPC) and conservative civic leaders have launched radio and TV advertisements, hosted a mayoral forum, and will distribute a voters’ guide ahead of the Nov. 3 election. Last week, HAPC held a news conference to demonstrate the unity within the racially, denominationally, and politically diverse coalition opposed to the Equal Rights Ordinance (ERO), which makes sexuality and gender identity protected classes. Pastors representing 150 churches gathered at the 70,000-member Second Baptist Church on Oct. 7 to make clear their opposition to Proposition 1 and urge Christians to do their civic duty and vote.
“The church has been silent,” Ed Young, pastor of Second Baptist, told me. “Either we’re complacent, either we have not tuned in, or we’ve thought somebody else will do it. The Bible teaches us to be responsible citizens.”
Prop 1 and this year’s mayoral race are expected to draw a higher than normal voter turnout. But “normal” should not be an acceptable number, said Dave Welch, HAPC executive director. A 2013 get-out-the-vote campaign by HAPC to unseat Parker failed to draw a substantial number of voters to the polls. Only 18 percent of registered voters cast ballots, up from 13 percent in 2011, and Parker won reelection to her third, final, and most contentious term.
The results perplexed Khanh Huynh. In the Vietnam he fled in 1979, citizens were intimidated into voting for specific candidates.
“As Vietnamese we know [voting] is a privilege,” said Huynh, who pastors Vietnamese Baptist Church. “I cannot understand that in a city the size of Houston that the voting percentage is so low.”
The lack of civic engagement by Christians exasperates Welch. Complacency has earned the church the cultural conflicts it now faces, he said. But Welch insists a paradigm shift is underway.
“The churches and pastors are finally recognizing that we do have a role to speak to the culture,” he said. “Our salt duty is just as important as our light.”
But salt can be an irritant. The ordinance fight has put the church community at odds with some of Houston’s most powerful business interests. The Greater Houston Partnership (GHP), a 1,200-member business association that has endorsed the ordinance since its inception, warns a Prop 1 defeat will portray Houston as bigoted and result in economic turmoil that could cost the city the 2016 NCAA Final Four and the 2017 Super Bowl.
But a $10,000 donation this week from Houston Texans owner Bob McNair to Campaign for Houston, the group formed to defeat Prop 1, flies in the face of that argument. Jared Woodfill, campaign co-chair, called GHP’s argument a scare tactic with no evidence to support it.
“If there was any chance in us losing the Super Bowl, I don’t think he would take this position,” Woodfill said of McNair’s donation. “Many members of the Greater Houston Partnership are some of our biggest contributors.”
Churches are using the ordinance controversy as a teachable moment, registering their members to vote and then urging them to go to the polls.
Prop 1 opponents are pressing the gender identity issue with a “No men in women’s bathrooms” ad campaign. They warn male sexual predators could use the ordinance to their advantage by dressing as women in order to gain access to women’s bathrooms. Parker denies the law gives permission for that and accused her opponents of using scare tactics to gain support.
But in a mayoral forum hosted by HAPC on Sept. 17, the four leading contenders in the mayor’s race admitted the ordinance permits biological males to enter women’s bathrooms. Candidate Chris Bell was quick to add he disagreed with fears about sexual assault. He then asked where a transgender person was supposed to use the bathroom.
“As a male, I would find it a little bit creepy if a transgender individual in a dress came to use the restroom next to me at the Texans game,” Bell said. “I think that would be a little bit disturbing.”
When asked after the forum what consideration he would give to women and girls who felt the same way, Bell called the situation a “non-issue.”
But Ben Hall, a former City of Houston attorney and mayoral candidate opposed to the ordinance, said the opponents’ fears are valid.
“Not only does [a man] have the right under this ordinance to go into the restroom but he has the legal protection not to be removed from the restroom,” Hall said.
Houston clergy who affirm homosexuality and transgenderism also have taken to the airwaves calling Houstonians to vote “Yes” on Prop 1. In an ad claiming “we’re all God’s children,” two pastors and their wives assert their Christian convictions compel them to treat “all people fairly.” But in reading a partial list of the 15 protected classes named under the ordinance, the pastors blatantly omit the major point of contention—gender identity.
Gregg Matte, pastor of Houston’s First Baptist Church, said opposition is not about discrimination.
“This proposition is not about people getting loans for homes. It’s not about people getting a car. It’s not about whether they’re hired to work at a job,” Matte said. “It’s about the normalization of gender confusion. That’s what it’s about.”
During the Oct. 7 press conference, Huynh made a somber plea to Houstonians.
“I am here to say to you we need to rise up and fight,” said Huynh. “I challenge people in my church and say, ‘If you Vietnamese, who fought in the war in Vietnam, if you have any fight left inside of you, rise up and fight for this. Say ‘no’ to this ordinance.’”
© 2015 World News Service. Used with permission.