From partisan to apolitical, from atheistic to interfaith — groups from around the state are speaking out against Gov. Perry’s Houston prayer meeting
Daniel Williams | Contributing Writer
HOUSTON — Texas Gov. Rick Perry has partnered with the American Family Association to present a day of prayer and fasting they have dubbed “The Response” on Saturday, Aug. 6, at Houston’s Reliant Stadium.
Organizers are calling the event “a call to prayer for a nation in crises.”
But opponents have a different take. They are calling the event everything from a political maneuver pandering to the right wing intended to kick off Perry’s 2012 presidential bid to an unconstitutional confluence of church and state.
And those opponents from around the state have been hard at work in recent weeks, planning their own response to the Perry prayer meeting.
Perry’s choice to partner with the American Family Association, which is paying for the Saturday event, quickly raised eyebrows in the LGBT community, where AFA is considered one of the country’s leading anti-gay groups. In fact, the Southern Poverty Law Center has classified AFA as an anti-gay hate group.
AFA’s contention that homosexuality is sinful according to the Bible is not enough, in and of itself, to put AFA on the SPLC hate group list.
But the AFA’s “propagation of known falsehoods — claims about LGBT people that have been thoroughly discredited by scientific authorities — and repeated, groundless name-calling” was more than enough to earn a place on the list.
To bring attention to their concerns over “The Response,” opponents have planned a variety of events in Houston and around the state: from partisan to apolitical, from atheist to interfaith.
Each event, organizers say, strives to stand in contrast to what they see as the blurring of church/state separation and the promotion of hate against LGBT people fostered by “The Response.”
Houston GLBT Caucus
For Noel Freeman, president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, “The Response” is just the latest in a long line of anti-LGBT events the caucus has encountered.
The caucus is spearheading an event highlighting the LGBT community’s response at 7 p.m, Friday, Aug. 5. State Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat and longtime LGBT ally in the Texas Legislature, will deliver the keynote address for the event at Tranquility Park at 400 Rusk St., in downtown Houston.
The Friday night LGBT event is being staged just one block from the site of a 1977 rally the caucus held to oppose Anita Bryant, who at the time was one of the most visible and most vocal foes of LGBT equality.
Fresh off her successful campaign to repeal a Dade County, Fla., ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, Bryant brought her “Save The Children” campaign to Houston. And the GLBT Caucus responded.
“The caucus has always stood up against the forces of hate. Look at our response in ’77,” said Freeman.
The caucus organized a massive counter-protest when Bryant came to town. And among those participating was a 22-year-old student and activist named Annise Parker.
Parker later became as the caucus’ eighth president before beginning her political career. She now serves as Houston’s mayor, becoming the first out LGBT mayor of a major American city when she was elected in 2009.
Freeman says responding to Perry’s rally is a duty for LGBT activists, a continuation of the caucus’ legacy of fighting hate and fostering young leadership.
“We have to support our community and say that hate is not acceptable in any capacity,” he said.
Dallasite Daniel Cates, North Texas regional coordinator for GetEQUAL, is heading to Houston on Friday to participate in the caucus’ rally. But the main reason for his trip is a protest planned by GetEQUAL outside Reliant Stadium on Saturday as “The Response” takes place inside.
Cates said the national attention paid to the fact that Perry is partnering with a hate group to stage “The Response” has helped galvanize activism in Texas.
“For a while we’ve been pretty quiet. I think that with events like this and events like the [June 2009] Rainbow Lounge [raid in Fort Worth], people are waking up,” Cates said.
“What’s interesting about the reaction to ‘The Response’ is that it’s been statewide,” he continued. “You’re seeing all these cities — Austin, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas — all these different cities coming together.”
GetEqual’s protest will be at the corner of Kirby Drive and McNee Road, starting at 8 a.m. Saturday.
Michael Divesti with GetEQUAL said that the protesters will remain at Reliant Stadium throughout the day. He urged participants to bring water and drink it often to fight the heat.
“We don’t want anyone getting heat stroke out there,” Divesti said.
GetEQUAL is partnering with the American Atheists for the protest, but GetEQUAL leaders stressed that the event is not anti-prayer.
“We’re not at all anti-prayer or anti-religion,” said Cates. “We’re anti-the-state-getting-involved-in-religion.
“I pray; my faith is very important to me,” he added.
CNN reported last month that Perry may not even speak at the rally, although it was his idea to stage the event. The possibility doesn’t surprise Divesti, who believes “The Response” has always been more about political pandering than sincere prayer.
“Perry was a Democrat until he figured out he would be more popular as a Republican. He was Methodist until he figured out he would be more popular as an evangelical,” Divesti said. “He believed in state’s rights until he figured out he would be more popular as a DOMA supporter. So now that his support of the AFA is proving unpopular on the national stage, is anyone surprised he’s scrambling to distance himself?”
FW First Congregational Church
Also planning to protest outside of Reliant Stadium on Saturday is a group from Fort Worth’s First Congregational Church.
Marvin Van, who is organizing the group, said he expects 15 to 20 people to make the trek to Houston on Friday night to participate in an interfaith service at Mount Ararat Baptist Church before spending Saturday at Reliant Stadium.
Van said that as representatives of a mainstream Christian church, his group is in a unique position to respond to “The Response.”
“We are very specifically protesting the misuse of the gospel to promote hate speech,” Van said.
“We know we’re not going to convince the governor or the AFA. That’s not why we’re going. We’re going for that gay or lesbian teenager or that Muslim teenager who thinks Christianity is only about hate,” he said.
Harris County Democratic Party
While Cates, Divesti and the people of First Congregational Church are protesting at Reliant Stadium Saturday, the Harris County Democratic Party will hold its fourth “Trailblazers Luncheon” downtown at the Hyatt Regency Hotel — ironically, the same hotel that was the venue for Anita Bryant’s 1977 event.
The traditional luncheon is the Harris County party’s way of highlighting contributions by members of historically oppressed communities. Previous luncheons have honored women, African-Americans and Latinos. According to the event’s co-chairs, Brad Pritchett and Robert Shipman, the party had already planned to honor members of the LGBT community at this year’s luncheon before learning of “The Response.”
“We hadn’t decided on a date for the event yet. But when Perry’s event was announced, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to counter-program,” Pritchett said.
Shipman added, “I think the tag line of the luncheon says it best: ‘A Celebration of Diversity.’ We’re focusing on the positive.”
Pritchett said while he sees parallels between Saturday’s “Response” and Anita Bryant’s 1977 “Save the Children” event in Houston, he believes Perry’s rally is worse.
“We should feel even more attacked because it’s our own governor bringing a hate group here,” he said. “He was elected to represent all Texans, but instead decided to align himself with the most extreme fringe.”
Pritchett also said he isn’t surprised Perry has refused so far to confirm whether he will speak at “The Response” event on Saturday, because the governor has “seen a negative push-back from his association with the AFA. He doesn’t know how that’s going to affect him when he’s trying to court moderate voters in a presidential election.”
Tickets for the Trailblazer’s Luncheon are available at the door and on-line at HCDP.org. Check-in begins at 9:30 a.m.
First UU Church of Houston
Another — uniquely apropos — response to “The Response” is planned for 2 p.m. Saturday: an interfaith prayer service.
The Rev. Adam Robinson of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, who is organizing the event, said that it’s sometimes difficult for people of faith to oppose events like “The Response” for fear of appearing anti-prayer.
“It’s hard for faith leaders to take a stand and not make it look like they oppose praying to God to make the country better,” Robinson acknowledged. But, he said, he felt he had a responsibility to do something.
“I despise that our governor has aligned himself with a hate group. I feel called to provide people with an alternative,” Robinson said.
First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston is located at 5200 Fannin St.
Dennis Coleman, executive director of the statewide LGBT advocacy organization Equality Texas, said he believes “The Response” has already backfired on Perry.
“There’s been a galvanization of the community around the state,” Coleman said. “Texans are taken aback by the people our governor has aligned himself with.”
But Coleman said he suspects Perry’s attempt to distance himself from the prayer meeting has more to do with fears of low turnout at the event rather than concerns over being associated with a hate group.
“I think he’s backpeddling because his event’s a flop, not because of the association with the AFA,” Coleman said. “The AFA is controversial, but Perry is controversial. He wants this to be a success. He doesn’t want 7,500 people in a 75,000 seat arena. But I think that’s what he’s going to get.”
Coleman is traveling to Houston to speak at the GLBT Caucus’ Friday night rally and to present the keynote address at the Trailblazer’s Luncheon on Saturday. The legacy of “The Response” remains to be determined and will depend largely on whether Perry decides to finally announce his much-hinted-at presidential bid.
But for those organizing the responses to “The Response,” the event has created a unique flash-point, a moment in time to focus and unite the people of Texas in opposition to hate.
“We’ve had so many victories lately — in local government, in the state legislatures and nationally,” Coleman said. “But it’s sometimes hard for people to find a single, concrete issue that they can wrap their hands around and participate in.
“Gov. Perry, by aligning himself with the AFA and other hate groups, has provided that moment, and LGBT Texans and their allies have responded unanimously: ‘There is no room for hate in our state.’”
Texans responds to ‘The Response’
• The Houston GLBT Caucus will hold a rally Friday, Aug. 5, at 7 p.m., at Tranquility Park, 400 Rusk St. in downtown Houston. State Rep. Garnet Coleman will be keynote speaker.
• GetEQUAL will hold a day-long protest outside Reliant Stadium, at the corner of Kirby Drive and McNee Road, beginning at 8 p.m. and lasting as long as “The Response.” Participants are urged to bring plenty of water.
• Members of Fort Worth First Congregational Church, 4201 Trail Lake Drive, will be leaving for Houston on Friday night and will be holding a rally outside Reliant Stadium on Saturday. Call the church at 817-923-2990 for details.
• The Harris County Democratic Party will hold its fourth annual “Trailblazers Luncheon” Saturday at Houston’s Hyatt Regency Hotel. Tickets for the Trailblazer’s Luncheon are available at the door and on-line at HCDP.org. Check-in begins at 9:30 a.m. Go online for more information.
• First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, led by the Rev. Adam Robinson, will hold an interfaith prayer service Saturday at 2 p.m. to offer a faith-based alternative to “The Response.” The church is located at 5200 Fannin St. For more information call the church at 713-526-5200.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 5, 2011.