Texans filled the pews at Mt. Ararat Baptist Church in Houston Friday night, to join religious leaders and activist organizations in opposing “The Response,” this weekend’s prayer and fasting event hosted by Gov. Rick Perry and the American Family Association.
The ACLU of Texas and Americans United for Separation of Church and State hosted the evening gathering called “Faith, Family and Freedom” as members of the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Atheist communities condemned the event’s religious divisiveness, political motivations and affiliation with the AFA.
Rev. William Lawson, an African-American Baptist pastor, pointed to racial exclusivity of the event, saying the rally’s key coordinators consisted of a narrow group in their religious and ethnic backgrounds. The event, said Lawson, is not only a Christian-based prayer rally, but a white Christian prayer rally.
“There is still [racial] prejudice present today. What Governor Perry is doing by hosting a Christian prayer rally and excluding everyone else is a new form of Jim Crow,” said Lawson.
In an interview after the church gathering, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, who came to show her solidarity with the grassroots groups, addressed controversial remarks made by AFA leaders, including contentious racial commentary.
“People have the right to say words that may be controversial but they don’t have the right to cry fire in a crowded theater,” she said. “When you condemn someone for their humanity it raises the question of your argument’s validity.”
“It would be very curious and very difficult to understand why any human being, who came to be part of the solution, should be denied on the basis of their sexual orientation, their race, their ethnicity or their religion,” said Lee. She said the space at Reliant Stadium would be better served as a site for feeding the hungry and homeless.
Imam Qasim Khan, president and CEO of Islamic organization Shades of White, called Perry a “contradictory politician, one that claims to be religious but fails to help those most in need. “He has been hired by us, we are his employers. I think he’s confused,” said Khan. “Some politicians are so addicted to power they forget what they are charged to do.” Khan said whatever the turnout at “The Response” is, it “won’t be enough to get him reelected.”
Mini Timmaraju, a practicing Hindu and part of the Vedanta Society of Greater Houston, stressed peace and diversity while Dr. Ariel Thomann, who grew up evangelical and is now a member of the Humanists of Houston, focused on the event’s religious exclusivity. Rev. Ellen Cooper Davis, member of the Houston Clergy Council, a group that directed a letter of opposition to “The Response,” condemned the prayer rally for exploiting faith and prayer and criticized the event’s co-hosts for denigrating gays and lesbians.
Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of AU, traced many of the contentious remarks made by AFA, while echoing sentiments expressed during the counter rally’s precursor, including its overstepping of church-state boundaries, which the Texas Independent previously reported.
For Houston resident Robin Willis it was AFA’s “appalling” attacks on the LGBT community that tipped the scales. “We need to combat the pervasive misconception that all Christians are homophobic,” she said. “Hopefully events like this one serve as an antidote to that type of thinking.”
In the pews, Jacoba Schneider came to show her anger at what she described as an effort by public officials to force their own religion on their constituency. “I cannot reconcile prayer events like this one — demanding and assuming we should all share in the same belief — when we are such a multicultural society,” she said.