Even for Texas,
the scene was remarkable: The governor, flanked by an
out-of-state televangelist and religious-right leaders,
signing legislation in a church school gymnasium amid
shouts of "Amen!" from backers who just as well could
have been attending a revival.
It wasn't just the blatant blend of church and
state that made the gathering in Fort Worth unusual.
Advance publicity also attracted about 300 angry
protesters--unheard of for the routine business of
ceremonial bill signings.
Now some wonder whether Gov. Rick Perry
overplayed his hand last week trying to stick to the
playbook used by old friend George W. Bush and
political whiz Karl Rove, mobilizing evangelicals for last
year's presidential race. "Governor Perry and his
people are just not as good as Bush and Rove,"
Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal
Jillson said. "Governor Perry knows the steps, but he's
got no rhythm."
Perry's faith-based appeal came as he awaited
possible Republican Party gubernatorial primary
challenges from U.S. senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and
state comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn in 2006. But
Jillson said the ex-Democrat risks alienating moderate
Republicans turned off by an in-your-face approach to
political issues with religious themes. It's a gamble
the governor seems willing to take. Last month he spoke to
about 500 pastors in Austin at a meeting of the Texas
Restoration Project, which plans to register 300,000
new "values voters" in Texas and elect candidates who
reflect their conservative views.
In the private meeting Perry championed
promotion of spiritual values in the public square.
"One of the great myths of our time is that you can't
legislate morality," the governor told the ministers,
according to a transcript provided to the Associated
Press by his campaign. "If you can't legislate
morality, then you can neither lock criminals up nor
let them go free. If you can't legislate morality, you can
neither recognize gay marriage nor prohibit it. If you
can't legislate morality, you can neither allow for
prayer in school nor prevent it," he said. "It is a
ridiculous notion to say you can't legislate morality. I say
you can't not legislate morality."
Perry, a United Methodist, did not refer to the
death penalty, which his denomination says devalues
life and should be eliminated from criminal codes. The
governor, a capital punishment proponent, presides over the
nation's most active death penalty state.
televangelist Rod Parsley and Tony Perkins of the Family
Research Council in Washington, D.C., were among
the religious conservatives who shared the stage with
Perry at the Fort Worth bill signing. Parsley linked
homosexuality and disease rates, and about 1,000 supporters
cheered attacks on "activist judges" and the media.
Objections to Perry's using a church school as a
backdrop to a bill signing preceded his visit, with
critics mostly focusing on separation of church and state.
"This is one of the most outrageous misuses of a
house of worship for political gain that I've ever
seen," said the Reverend Barry W. Lynn, executive
director of Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for
Separation of Church and State.
Perry shrugged off the complaints. "We could
have signed it in a lot of different locations," Perry
said on Fox News. "We could have signed it in a
Wal-Mart parking lot, and those who are against people of
faith being involved in the electoral process would still
have been very much against this bill." Perry actually
signed two measures. One will impose more limits on
late-term abortions and require minors to get written
parental consent. The other is a
consitutional amendment banning same-sex
marriage, but voters must approve it in November for
it to become law.
Perkins said he sees nothing wrong with signing
legislation at a Christian school, and he pointed to a
consistent theme of the bill signing: Forces are at
work to exclude the religious-minded from political
and civic debate. "People of faith are not backing up, we
are not giving up, we are here to stay," he said. Luis
Saenz, Perry's campaign spokesman, said Perry is not
the first governor to sign a bill in a religious