By Rob Boston
An El Paso church’s brazen effort to remove the mayor and two members of the city council has been brought to a screeching halt.
The political drama in the west Texas town started last summer when Pastor Tom Brown of Word of Life Church issued a politically charged email to the community. Brown, who sent the email under the guise of his Tom Brown Ministries, attacked El Paso Mayor John Cook and El Paso City Council Members Steve Ortega and Susie Byrd because the three voted to extend health-care benefits to domestic partners.
Brown then joined forces with a group called El Pasoans for Traditional Family Values (EPFTFV) and announced he would recall Cook, Ortega and Byrd. His ministry’s website posted an “Open Letter to City Council” that said in part, “If you are upset at this action and would like to sign and/or circulate a recall petition against Mayor John Cook and Representatives Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega, then fill out the form below. Share this page with your friends and get them to fill out the form. Thanks.”
Brown’s church and ministry essentially organized and coordinated the recall campaign, taking the lead role in circulating petitions. The church gathered enough signatures to put the matter on the ballot, but Brown overlooked one thing: Texas election laws prohibit corporations (which includes non-profit groups) from intervening in elections.
County Court Judge Javier Alvarez had earlier ruled that the church and EPFTFV had broken the law, but he refused to stop the election, arguing it would thwart the will of the people.
The Texas 8th Court of Appeals was not impressed with this curious logic. Ruling unanimously, the court slammed Alvarez and made it clear that the state’s laws must be enforced.
“Despite having viewed the evidence in the light most favorable to the trial court’s order and indulging every reasonable inference in its favor, we find the trial court’s order denying injunctive relief is so arbitrary as to exceed the bounds of reasonable discretion,” wrote the judges.
The appeals court added, “It is essential to the independence of the judiciary and public confidence in the judicial process that a judge be faithful to the law and not be swayed by public clamor or fear of criticism. It is significant, we think, that the trial court lost sight of the fact that a proper application of the law to the facts in this case does not act to bar voters from properly exercising their right to seek a recall of elected office holders, provided that such right is exercised in accordance with the provisions of the Election Code.”
The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Religious Right legal organization founded by television and radio preachers in the early 1990s, jumped into the case on behalf of Brown’s church. Joel Oster, the ADF attorney who handled the lawsuit, didn’t comment after the ruling came down, and the two local attorneys who worked on it, Theresa Caballero and Stuart Leeds, hung up on an El Paso Times reporter who called asking for comment.
The bombastic Brown attacked the appeals court and is vowing to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, but Mark Walker, Cook’s attorney, thinks it’s unlikely that the state high court will hear the matter. Walker noted that the Texas Supreme Court usually hears cases only if the lower court was split or if lower courts have issued conflicting rulings on a legal question.
“My analysis is it can’t be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court,” Walker told the Times. He called the ruling “a victory for the rule of law.”
Brown’s troubles may not over. He could get slapped with a bill for Cook’s legal fees, which have topped a quarter of a million dollars. Furthermore, violations of the Texas election law can result in criminal penalties. Jaime Esparza, the local district attorney, is investigating that aspect of things.
Finally, Americans United last year asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigateBrown’s partisan political activities and, if he is found in violation of the law, to revoke his ministry’s tax-exempt status.
It sounds like Brown has stepped into quite a tar pit. Maybe all of this political intervention by a church might not have been a good idea after all.