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El Paso Mayor John Cook
El Paso, Texas, mayor John Cook, who has been in a pitched battle with local churches and the faith-oriented members in his community in recent months and could end up facing a recall election, apparently doesn’t have much empathy for those who support the religious element in his community.
A video has surfaced that shows he gave a woman who was addressing the city council on the issue of its criticism of faith and churches only some 70 seconds to talk, and then he told her to take her “freedom of speech outside.”
The long- and still-running conflict dates back to the latter part of 2010 when the city’s voters by popular petition passed an ordinance prohibiting the city from extending benefits to unmarried domestic partners, which would include homosexual duos.
Some members of the city council didn’t like what the voters had done, and voted to rescind the voters’ work. The mayor approved the move, which promptly triggered a grassroots campaign – which included church members and leaders – to circulate a petition demanding a recall of the offenders.
Cook then filed suit alleging the Word of Life Church of El Paso, Pastor Tom Brown, ElPasoans for Traditional Family Values and others violated Texas election law by circulating the petitions, which succeeded at prompting a recall election scheduled in the spring.
According to local news reports, the recall election for Cook and two others now is scheduled to proceed, after Judge Javier Alvarez denied Cook’s demand to stop the recall effort that names him and city officials Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega.
That election now apparently is scheduled for April
During the heat of those arguments, Father Michael Rodriguez asked the city council not to extend benefits to same-sex couples.
That request prompted a member of the council to blast representatives of the Christian faith. Beto O’Rourke referenced the “moral failings of the church” and accused representatives of trying “to take the moral high ground” in the debate.
“I want to know why this for you has become the burning issue of its day and how you can stand here with a straight face and say that this is a priority for the church and, and I can think of two obvious cases where the church has failed on a global level, uh, for one, I know in the very recent past the pope, our current pope, was in Africa, telling the people in that country (sic) who are suffering a holocaust of HIV and AIDS infection not to use condoms. I can think of another very significant and serious problem within the Catholic church which is the proven widespread abuse of children within the care of the Catholic church. I wonder where your outspokenness is on those issues…”
The mayor did not halt the attack on Christians.
In light of that attack a woman, Elizabeth Branham, approached the podium during the public comment section of the next meeting, a week later.
“I’m here not to chastise you for your obvious lack of civility and decorum, nor address your permissiveness in allowing certain council members to personalize their attacks on certain speakers at this podium. Mayor, you specifically stated at last week’s city council meeting June the 14th that you would not allow personal attacks yet you let it happen anyway. Mr. O’Rourke, you stated at last week’s public hearings that you want to be remembered for decades for the decisions you made at city council. You will be remembered, sir, for many things. Last week, you wrongfully and disrespectfully attacked Father Michael Rodriguez and the moral failings of the Catholic church. You stated that Fr. Rodriguez was taking the moral high ground in this debate and I quote you as stating. I think there is fair folks, totally out of line…”
“Thank you, your time is over,” said Cook. “If you can’t remove yourself from the podium, I’ll have you removed. Yeah. You can take your freedom of speech outside.”
The Times said some 15,000 people had signed the petition seeking the recall. The mayor earlier threatened the pastors involved with felony charges over their involvement, saying that corporations [churches] were not allowed to assist in a recall. The church leaders said if that’s the law, it’s unconstitutional because it infringes on free speech.
Jesus Chapel and its pastor, H. Warren Hoyt, with the help of attorneys from the Alliance Defense Fund, have asked a federal court to strike down the election law Cook is cited as unconstitutional censorship of free speech.
“Pastors and churches shouldn’t live in fear of being punished by the government for exercising their constitutionally protected right to free speech,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Joel Oster in a statement. “No law or government official can rob a faith group of its constitutionally protected rights just because that official would prefer not to be removed from office.”
The ADF lawsuit insists that Jesus Chapel and Pastor Hoyt merely want to be able to “fully participate as citizens within the community, including circulating petitions to hold recall elections, without fear of punishment arising from the enforcement of an unconstitutional state election law against them.”