El Paso mayor’s support for DP benefits helps make him a finalist in World Mayor competition

El Paso Mayor John Cook

El Paso Mayor John Cook’s popularity for his stance on domestic partner benefits may earn him the title of world’s best mayor.

Cook’s efforts were not forgotten when it came time to nominate mayors for the World Mayor 2012 competition, sponsored by London-based think tank City Mayors Foundation. Thirteen of the 22 who wrote in support of Cook mentioned the benefits fight, according to the El Paso Times.

The City Council approved DP benefits in 2009, but the vote was overturned in a ballot measure led by anti-gay Pastor Tom Brown in 2010. Cook cast the tie-breaking vote last year to restore DP benefits, stirring Brown to begin a recall effort. A county judge ruled in Brown’s favor, but an appeals court later sided with Cook in February. Brown then appealed to the Texas Supreme Court but it’s doubtful the court will hear the case.

Cook is among five North American finalists and 25 worldwide for the award that recognizes a mayor’s achievements with a sculpture for commemoration. Votes and comments about the finalists’ achievements will be taken into consideration by the organization.

—  Anna Waugh

WATCH: LGBT activists in El Paso rally against anti-gay petition being circulated at polling sites

Skip Rosenthal

Early voting in El Paso has apparently turned into a fight for another recall of elected officials who supported the city’s domestic partner benefits.

A video posted online today by the El Paso Times shows activists with signs trying to discourage voters from signing petitions for the recall that groups are asking them to sign outside polling locations. The rally comes two days after a settlement was announced in a lawsuit brought by five men who were kicked out of Chico’s Taco and threatened with arrest for a same-sex kiss.

The incident led to the City Council passing DP benefits in 2009 and again in 2011 after a ballot measure overturned the original decision. The mayor has stood firm in supporting DP benefits and won an appeal to recall the council’s decision earlier this year.

“We believe this has been a gay-rights issue from day one and we need to support the mayor and the city councils and we need to be visible,” gay-rights activist Skip Rosenthal says in the video. “The gay community is here, we are religious, we are God-fearing and we are also citizens and taxpayers and we deserve rights, too.”

The number of people at the rally was not mentioned in the video and the groups that were asking people to sign the petitions were not named, but El Paso Tom Brown spearheaded the recall petition in the past.

Rosenthal mentioned that President Barack Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage demonstrates a “turn of the tide” for the nation and El Paso citizens need to follow suit and support gay rights.

“We need to bring that to El Paso,” he said. “We need to show El Paso that we are here and we are active and we go to church and we vote and we’re taxpayers and we deserve rights, too.”

Well said.

Watch the video below.

—  Anna Waugh

El Paso settles suit brought by men threatened with sodomy charge for gay kiss at Chico’s Taco

Carlos Diaz de Leon

An El Paso discrimination case that began three years ago with two men kissing in a restaurant has come to an end after a settlement calling for diversity training for the city’s police officers was reached.

The settlement with the city was announced Monday by Carlos Diaz de Leon and his lawyers at City Hall, ABC-7 in El Paso reports.

The agreement calls for the city to fund annual police diversity training on LGBT issues. The security company that works at the restaurant will also train its employees on diversity and sensitivity.

Diaz de Leon, along with four other unnamed men, filed a lawsuit in 2010 against the city, Chico’s Taco and a security company after they were thrown out by security in June 2009 when two of the men kissed in the restaurant. They were also threatened with charges under Texas’ sodomy statute by El Paso police who were misinformed that the statute was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003.

The case spurred a response by the El Paso City Council, which had already approved an ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation by businesses in 2003. Later in 2009 the council approved domestic partner benefits for unmarried gay and straight couples, but they were overturned in a ballot measure led by El Paso Pastor Tom Brown in 2010.

The council voted to restore the benefits in 2011, prompting Brown to start a recall effort. A county judge ruled in Brown’s favor in a battle with El Paso Mayor John Cook but a court of appeals overturned the decision in February. Brown then appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.

Police later admitted to making a mistake in threatening charges, citing police officer Israel Rodriguez-Aceves’ rookie status for his misguided threats. Rodriguez-Aceves later wrote an apology letter as part of the case. Released Monday, it reads: “I am writing you to state that I regret the way the situation was handled that evening. From this point on, as a police officer, I will enforce the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance.”

Diaz de Leon told ABC-7 that the outcome was “a step forward, not only for the gay community but the straight community as well.”

 

—  Anna Waugh

Tom Brown Ministries named anti-gay hate group as El Paso pastor files appeal of recall ruling

Pastor Tom Brown

Just as El Paso pastor Tom Brown filed an appeal this week to the Texas Supreme Court, his Tom Brown Ministries was labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Brown filed an appeal Wednesday of a court’s ruling rejecting his effort to recall El Paso Mayor John Cook and two other council members over their support of domestic partner benefits for unmarried city employees.

This was just as the Southern Poverty Law Center was issuing its annual list of anti-gay hate groups. The 27 groups, up from 17 last year, includes Tom Brown Ministries.

Brown’s group is the second anti-gay group in Texas to be declared a hate group by the SPLC after the San Antonio-based Bethesda Christian Institute.

The El Paso City Council approved DP benefits in 2009, but were overturned in a ballot measure led by Brown’s El Pasoans for Traditional Family Values in 2010.

City Council voted to restore DP benefits last year, prompting Brown to begin a recall effort. While a county judge ruled in Brown’s favor after the recall was challenged in court by El Paso Mayor John Cook, the appeals court overturned the decision in February.

While Brown may have filed with the Texas Supreme Court, an attorney for Cook previously said the odds of the court taking the case are slim.

—  Anna Waugh

VICTORY: Appeals court blocks recall of El Paso officials who voted in favor of DP benefits

Friday's ruling was a major setback for anti-gay Pastor Tom Brown, who may also face criminal charges.

In a victory for supporters of LGBT equality, a Texas appeals court has rejected an effort to recall El Paso Mayor John Cook and two other council members over their support of domestic partner benefits for unmarried city employees.

Texas’ 8th Court of Appeals ruled unanimously on Friday that recall organizers, led by anti-gay Pastor Tom Brown, broke the law in gathering petition signatures for the recall election, which had been scheduled for this spring.

After the El Paso City Council first approved DP benefits for gay and straight city workers in 2009, Brown spearheaded a ballot measure that overturned them in 2010. Last year, after the City Council voted to restore DP benefits, Brown’s group launched its recall effort, which was challenged in court by Cook. A county judge initially ruled against Cook, but the appeals court overturned that decision.

The El Paso chapter of PFLAG issued a statement Friday saying: “It is with jubilation that the recall election, supported by Christian bigots, has finally reached the finish line. The judges clearly saw that this attempt was purely done out of hatred, disguised as the word of God.”

Brown and others may also face criminal charges based on the appeals court’s ruling, which found that his Word of Life Church violated a statute prohibiting corporate political contributions to recall elections. The court also found that Brown’s group, El Pasoans for Traditional Family Values, illegally raised money in support of the recall when it wasn’t registered as a political action committee.

Brown said recall organizers will appeal the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court, but an attorney for Mayor Cook believes it’s highly unlikely the high court would take the case. Cook, who cast the deciding vote in favor of restoring DP benefits last year, reportedly has spent $225,000 on his lawsuit seeking to block the recall. The mayor said he now plans to seek monetary damages against Brown’s group.

—  John Wright

Anti-gay El Paso group plans big push to illegally gather signatures in churches this weekend

As you’ve undoubtedly heard, an anti-gay group in El Paso is gathering signatures in an effort to recall three city officials who voted earlier this year to restore domestic partner benefits for city employees.

The deadline for the group to submit the signatures is next week, and it remains unclear whether they’ll have enough to force elections later this year.

On Thursday night, Mayor John Cook, one of the targets of the recall effort, issued a statement saying he may sue to challenge the signatures because the group has been gathering them illegally in churches, in violation of the Texas Election Code.

Last month, the El Paso County district attorney announced an investigation into allegations that the group was illegally using churches to gather signatures, and a complaint has been filed with the IRS.

If the anti-gay group gathers enough signatures, the recall elections will cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars. Meanwhile, of the 19 city employees who signed up for DP benefits, only two are gay.

A group called No Recall has formed to counter the recall effort.

—  John Wright

El Paso DP benefits update: Hundreds attend ‘No Recall’ rally; DA investigates anti-gay petitioners

About 500 people attended a rally Sunday in support of three El Paso officials who may face recall elections because they voted earlier this year to reinstate domestic partner benefits for city employees.

Meanwhile, the El Paso County district attorney is investigating the anti-gay group that’s behind the recall petitions for allegedly using churches to gather signatures.

And opponents of the recall got some support last week from basketball legend Tim Hardaway. Hardaway, who played at UTEP, once famously said he hated gay people but now says those behind the recall need to “grow up.”

—  John Wright

Anti-gay El Paso pastor faces IRS complaint for using tax-exempt church to fight DP benefits

Pastor Tom Brown of Word of Life Church was the driving force behind a ballot measure to repeal DP benefits in El Paso.

An anti-gay El Paso pastor is accused of illegally using his tax-emempt church to advocate political causes. The Rev. Tom Brown of Word of Life Church, who spearheaded last year’s ballot initiative rescinding domestic partner benefits for city employees, has now launched a petition to  recall council members who voted to restore DP benefits this June. The El Paso Times reports that Brown announced the recall petitions to his congregation last month and has written in support of them on his Tom Brown Ministries website, prompting a complaint to the IRS from Americans United for Separateion of Chruch and State:

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said his group files such complaints against about “eight or 10″ tax-exempt groups nationwide each election cycle.

His group has received several complaints about Brown’s activities from El Paso residents.

“This seems so over-the-top, so brazen an attempt to involve himself in a partisan political campaign,” Lynn said, explaining his group’s reason for filing the complaint.

When Brown’s wife ran unsuccessfully for a City Council seat in May on an anti-DP benefits platform, she announced her campaign from the pulpit of the church and asked people to meet her in the vestibule if they wanted to volunteer. But it’s unclear if anyone filed a complaint about that incident. Brown denies all of the allegations and says the IRS complaint amounts to “harassment and persecution of anti-religious people against people of faith.”

In related news, the El Paso City Council voted Tuesday to hold a charter election in November 2012. One council member has proposed an anti-discrimination charter amendment that would prohibit the city from denying DP benefits to gay and lesbian employees.

The council, which initially approved DP benefits in 2009, voted to reinstate them last month after a federal judge upheld the ballot initiative rescinding them.

—  John Wright

Pastor threatens recall drive if DP benefits restored in El Paso; council to vote today

Pastor Tom Brown of Word of Life Church was the driving force behind a ballot measure to repeal DP benefits in El Paso.

The pastor behind a ballot initiative to repeal domestic partner benefits in El Paso is threatening to launch recall petitions against city councilmembers who vote in favor of an ordinance to restore them.

The council is slated to vote on the ordinance this morning that would restore benefits taken away under a ballot initiative approved by voters in November. Mayor John Cook introduced the ordinance last week after a federal judge upheld the ballot initiative.

The El Paso Times reports that today’s vote on the ordinance is expected to be close. Pastor Tom Brown, who spearheaded the ballot initiative, is threatening recall elections against Cook and any council member who votes in favor of the ordinance. From the EPT:

The initiative was intended by its authors just to end benefits for 19 unmarried partners of employees. But it also cost more than 100 others — including members of the City Council — benefits because of the way it was worded.

Brown said the mayor is now trying to override the will of the voters.

“We’re doing it because the mayor is trying to overturn the democratic process,” Brown said on Monday. “This is the first ordinance the people of El Paso have ever passed. If (what Cook is trying to do) works, it will be the end of direct democracy in El Paso.”

Cook said he proposed the ordinance as a matter of principle, not because it’s popular.

“I’m not going to change my position because of threats,” the mayor said.

City Rep. Susie Byrd, who supports Cook’s ordinance, was even more blunt.

“I don’t think public policy should be shaped by bullies or bigots,” she said.

—  John Wright

Time to start blaming the bigots behind the repeal of DP benefits for anti-gay violence in El Paso

Pastor Tom Brown of Word of Life Church was the driving force behind a ballot measure to repeal DP benefits in El Paso.

A fourth suspect has been arrested in connection with a brutal assault outside the Old Plantation gay nightclub in downtown El Paso on May 7, which the victim’s family members claim was a hate crime.

Manny Portillo, 19, was served with a warrant in the El Paso case while in custody on unrelated charges in Las Cruces, N.M. Portillo now awaits extradition back to Texas.

The other three men who’ve been arrested in the El Paso case are a 19-year-old, a 17-year-old and a 16-year-old. The victim, 22-year-old Lionel Martinez, remains in critical condition. A total of six suspects punched, kicked and beat Martinez with a baseball bat while he was waiting for a ride outside the Old Plantation. Martinez’s sister, who witnessed the crime, has said that although her brother is not gay, she believes it was a hate crime because the suspects were yelling anti-gay slurs.

El Paso police say the attack was gang-related and they aren’t treating it as a hate crime. However, the FBI is investigating the incident as a civil rights violation.

It’ s difficult to ignore the connection between this brutal crime and the ballot measure to repeal domestic partner benefits for El Paso city employees, which was upheld by a federal judge last week. For one thing, both cases serve to make El Paso look like an unwelcoming place for LGBT people — especially given allegations from LGBT advocates that police haven’t done enough to address violence in the area of the Old Plantation.

Beyond that, though, the ballot measure to repeal DP benefits effectively legitimizes anti-gay hatred and sends a dangerous message to all of society. The blood is on the hands of the bigots who were behind this initiative.

An anti-hate rally is scheduled for 11 this morning in front of the El Paso County Courthouse.

—  John Wright