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Texas preachers'
group signs up conservative voters

Texas preachers'
group signs up conservative voters

Conservative ministers have gathered in invitation-only meetings across Texas for months to listen to speeches from Gov. Rick Perry, Republican officials, and religious leaders. The chairman of the Texas Restoration Project says the group's meetings help pastors mobilize their flocks to vote in an effort to restore the state's religious heritage. "Each briefing will provide important information and resources you can use in your own congregations to promote voting in Texas," reads one of the invitations, which lists event locations such as the Fort Worth Club and the Crowne Plaza Houston Downtown. Despite religious trappings, critics charge the Texas Restoration Project's focus is all about politics: organizing a grassroots effort to pass a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage and to reelect Perry. The governor has spoken at all six of the group's private "Pastors Policy Briefings," evidence to some that it's simply an adjunct of the governor's campaign clothed in religious garb. "To the most casual observer, these events are really campaign events," said Dan Quinn, spokesman for the Austin-based Texas Freedom Network, which monitors the religious right. But the group's chairman, the Reverend Laurence White of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Houston, said the Texas Restoration Project isn't dragging politics into sanctuaries. "If anything, the political discussion has intruded into the life of the church in recent years as it has focused more and more on fundamental issues like the sanctity of life, marriage--things pastors have been preaching about for 2,000 years," he said. About 2,000 pastors who attended the meetings were urged to register voters at church. A get-out-the-vote effort called "Reclaiming Texas Sunday" is set for two days before Texans vote on a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Texas Freedom Network said it recently filed a complaint against the Restoration group with the Texas Ethics Commission, claiming it should be registered as a political committee. Commission staff attorney Tim Sorrells said he couldn't comment. The watchdog group contends that the pastors' group should disclose its funding and spending like other political groups. Pastors who attend Texas Restoration Project events, for example, receive complimentary meals and hotel accommodations for themselves and their families. Cal Jillson, professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said the Texas Restoration Project "is trying to enjoy the protections of being religious leaders and representing tax-exempt institutions, but acting as a political interest group.... I think their principal responsibility is transparency, and that is to be sure people know who they are, where their money is coming from, and how they use it.". White declined to release details of the group's finances to the Associated Press. While repeatedly denying the organization is partisan, he also said it is dangerous for churches to avoid politics. "Involving pastors in motivating people to participate in the political process as part of their calling as servants of God is a passion of mine and always has been," White said. Perry has made it clear that he shares White's zeal for wedding the political and religious. Borrowing a page from the playbook of his predecessor, George W. Bush, the governor championed the cause at a Texas Restoration Project meeting in May. "Freedom of religion is not to be confused with freedom from religion," Perry said, according to a transcript released to the AP by his campaign. "What a sad day it would be if the role of religion in our public discourse were limited to a few monuments and symbols that recognize God when the laws we make are an assault on his eternal truths." Flanked by religious-right leaders in June, Perry drew protests when he used a Fort Worth church school as a backdrop to a bill signing that included symbolic approval of the ban on same-sex marriage. The speakers included Ohio televangelist Rod Parsley, who linked homosexuality and disease rates. Parsley is involved in a similar "restoration" group in Ohio. Speakers at Texas Restoration Project meetings have included televangelist John Hagee; Secretary of State Roger Williams; Perry's deputy chief of staff, Phil Wilson; and poultry king Bo Pilgrim, who introduced Perry at a September event in Houston, according to agendas obtained by the AP. "He shows up, they sing his praises, the ministers sing his praises, he gives a great stump speech, yet his opponent in the Republican primary is not invited," Quinn said. "To our knowledge, no Democrat has ever been invited." Inviting Perry's opponents would give the group an unintended "overtly political appearance," White said. Perry is included because of the role his Christian faith plays in his governorship, he said. "If someone else is elected governor of Texas and they make Christian faith a prominent part of who they are, then we will invite them to take part," White said. (AP)

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