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Christians who signed petitions investigated

A prosecutor has decided to pursue and possibly charge members of El Paso area churches who promoted petitions opposing the city administration’s decision to implement benefits for same-sex partners even after voters decided not to allow that.

The result is an emergency appeal to the state Supreme Court by attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund, which has been working on the freedom of speech dispute.

The organization today warned that hundreds of Christians and other El Paso citizens “are facing jail time for exercising their constitutionally protected right to speak out against Mayor John Cook’s policies.”

The issue arose when voters in November 2010 placed on the ballot and passed an ordinance prohibiting unmarried domestic partner benefits in their city.

Several members of the city council refused to follow the will of the vote, and voted to rescind the ordinance approved by voters. The mayor joined in the effort.

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That produced a grassroots recall campaign seeking to remove the mayor and council members who violated the will of the people.

The mayor subsequently sued Tom Brown Ministries, Word of Life Church of El Paso, El Pasoans for Traditional Family Values and other local citizens who circulated recall petitions. He cited a Texas election law, arguing that it prohibits churches from circulating a petition.

While ADF attorneys have filed a separate federal suit against the law to have it declared unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds, a state judge denied Cook’s request to order the election halted.

Then the Court of Appeals for the 8th District took up the mayor’s cause and ordered the election stopped and the petition signatures decertified. Almost immediately, El Paso District Attorney Jaime Esparza subpoenaed the petitions and convened a grand jury to proceed with possible criminal indictment of those behind the petition effort.

That leaves those who worked on petitions expressing their opposition to the decision by the mayor and council to ignore the voters’ intentions subject to criminal charges, the ADF said.

“El Paso citizens should not live in fear of being arrested and jailed for exercising their constitutionally protected right to free speech,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Joel Oster, who argued before the appeals court on Jan. 24 in Cook v. Tom Brown Ministries.

“We have more than 250 signed affidavits from local citizens who are terrified that they may go to jail for their legitimate political and free speech efforts. This is America, and the mayor can’t be allowed to put his opponents in jail just because he doesn’t like the fact that they participated in a valid effort that he doesn’t favor,” said Oster.

The ADF reported former Texas Supreme Court Justice Raul Gonzalez, ADF-allied attorney and election law expert James Bopp, ADF-allied attorneys with Liberty Institute, and local counsel Theresa Cabellero and Stuart Leeds have joined with ADF lead attorneys to represent the constitutionally protected rights of El Paso citizens. In addition to the expedited petition, the legal team also filed a motion to stay the appellate court ruling, which would put it on hold until the high court decides the matter.

A video made at the peak of the conflict earlier also surfaced, revealing Cook’s apparently disdain for others who want to state their opinion.

The video shows the mayor gives 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.”

During the heat of the 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.

But 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.”

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