UPDATE: The Response spokesman Eric Bearse said on June 13 on AFA’s American Family Radio that the main objective of the event AFA is holding with Gov. Perry is to show people that Christianity is the only way to be hopeful. Bearse, who once served as Perry’s director of communications, said on the radio program, “anyone who comes to this solemn assembly regardless of their faith tradition or background, will feel the love, grace, and warmth of Jesus Christ in that assembly hall, in that arena. And that’s what we want to convey, that there’s acceptance and that there’s love and that there’s hope if people will seek out the living Christ.”
After news spread last week that Texas Gov. Rick Perry is planning to hold a prayer rally in August funded and organized by the stridently anti-gay group, the American Family Association (AFA), the governor and his staff have worked feverishly to distance themselves from the group’s hateful views.
Katherine Cesinger, spokeswoman for the governor, did not return several calls from the Southern Poverty Law Center seeking comment about Perry’s association with AFA. But earlier she told others that, “controversial statements [by AFA] have nothing to do with what the Governor is trying to promote.”
The AFA’s comments about the LGBT community – most notably those made by its director of policy analysis Bryan Fischer – are certainly controversial. Last year, for example, Fischer said, “Homosexuality gave us Adolph [sic] Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine and six million dead Jews.” More recently, in comments about a South African newspaper columnist found guilty of hate speech for a 2008 column, Fischer said, “This sorry incident tells us two things: homosexualism will kill free speech, and homosexualists are bigots.”
It’s no surprise that Perry would associate himself so closely with an anti-gay group like AFA. In a decade as governor, he has waged a fight to keep “homosexual conduct” listed as a criminal offense in the state penal code – a law he has said is “appropriate.” The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately struck down Texas’ anti-sodomy law in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas. In 2005, while signing a bill to amend the state constitution to specifically prohibit gays and lesbians from marrying, Rob Parsley, a celebrity Pentecostal faith healer, joined Perry and lauded the governor for “protecting the children of Texas from the gay agenda.”
Several newspapers have lampooned the governor for his choice of allies, while others have demanded Perry answer for restricting other faiths from the gathering. A Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorial claimed that, “By partnering with the American Family Association to sponsor the Aug. 6 event, the governor has hitched his holy chariot to a religious group known for publicly denouncing Muslims, Jews, blacks, gays and those who support a woman’s right to choose.” An editorial in the Los Angeles Times noted the obvious reality about Perry’s political character: “Perry isn’t a bit shy about cultivating some of the more sinister right-wing culture warriors.”
The Texas Freedom Network, a civil rights organization based in Austin, has begun circulating a petition to demand Perry cancel the August event, abandon AFA as a chief sponsor or work more openly to include other faiths. Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the network, said partnering with AFA is no different than joining hands with the Ku Klux Klan or the Aryan Nations.
“We’re talking about people who use faith as a weapon to divide Americans and to target certain individuals in our society for discrimination or worse,” Quinn told the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Wincing from the barrage of criticism, Fischer has attacked the “lame effort” from the “leftwing blogosphere” to discredit the event by pointing to his anti-gay tirades. Last Thursday, he released a long list of “distortions” to which he claims he has been victim. He said he had never attributed the rise of the Nazi Party and the horrors of the Holocaust to “homosexuality,” when in fact he did just that.
“I clearly lay the blame for the Holocaust on the Nazi Party, but attribute the rise of the Nazi Party to homosexual brutes,” he wrote. “Do not be under any illusions about what homosexual activists will do with your freedoms and your religious if they have the opportunity. They’ll do the same thing to you that the Nazis did to their opponents.”
Perry’s event is being billed as “The Response: a Call to Prayer for a Nation is Crisis.” It is scheduled for Aug. 6 at Reliant Stadium, a 72,000-seat venue in Houston. Promotional materials for the gathering quote Perry saying, “As a nation, we must come together, call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles. … There is hope for America. It lies in heaven, and we will find it on our knees.”