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Texas Church Is A Battleground In Gay Marriage War


This Tuesday and Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear more of oral arguments on two cases that could redefine marriage in this country. The court will consider the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage, and also the federal Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, that denies marital benefits to legally married gay couples. The cases have left some people - especially religious conservatives - reeling. NPR's John Burnett visited a church in El Paso that is fighting the rapidly shifting culture.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: It's miracle night at the Word of Life Church, a large Pentecostal congregation in El Paso that mixes Bible basics, healing and hard rock.



BURNETT: Pastor Tom Brown, dressed casually in jeans with his shirttail out, is the smiling, impassioned controversial leader of the church. Depending on which side of the cultural divide you inhabit, the evangelical preacher is either a hero or a hater. In 2010, he led a successful campaign to overturn a new city policy that provided health benefits to domestic partners, whom he called sinners and fornicators. So then, the city council of this liberal Democratic city threw out the referendum and restored insurance benefits. In response, a furious Brown spearheaded a recall campaign last year to boot out the mayor and two city council members. It was ultimately unsuccessful, and he's now facing a lawsuit that his church engaged in political activities, which would jeopardize its tax-exempt status. El Paso became one of the battlegrounds in the gathering war over gay marriage.


BURNETT: Word of Life Church is a refuge for conservative Christians resisting the forces of modernity that they see as immoral, such as gay marriage, abortion and pornography. Worshipers come here on Miracle Nights to recharge their batteries and feel the spirit.


BURNETT: On this night, visiting Pastor Juan Lawson conducts a healing service at the altar.


BURNETT: After the high-spirited services, the house lights come up and worshipers drift into the hallway to hug and greet one another. Jenna Chavez is a 38-year-old payroll company employee wearing a pink sweater and sparkly shoes. The Supreme Court cases loom large for her, because she believes that the Bible clearly states what constitutes marriage.

JENNA CHAVEZ: It's been defined, like he was saying, for thousands of years, and that we're beginning to question it. I don't think a court should determine what it is if God's already determined it. I do think it's bizarre. To me, it's almost like what is this world coming to?

BURNETT: The growing tolerance for homosexual marriage is anathema to the churchgoers here, who are mostly Hispanic. Marty Valles and Albert Navarez are music director and youth leader at Word of Life.

MARTY VALLES: I think a lot of people are afraid to offend people. But I strongly believe in what the word of God says. And the word of God says, you know, that your marriage should between a man and a woman.

ALBERT NAVAREZ: They're just going by the flow, you know, of society. So, if someone likes it, and they're OK with it, they'll just go with it.

BURNETT: When Christians stand up and speak out, the reaction is strong, says Jeremiah Navarro. He's a 30-year-old hairstylist who sports tattoos of a cross and a communion chalice. He was among the church volunteers who collected signatures to force the recall election, which was thrown out by the state Supreme Court a year ago.

JEREMIAH NAVARRO: Some people were like, oh yeah, cool, awesome, you know. We're eager to sign. But then there was the opposite end of it, where they were just like I can't believe you. What are you thinking? You know, you guys hate, you know, gay people and whatnot. It was either they were really, really, really for it or really, really against it.

BURNETT: Last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center declared Tom Brown Ministries to be a hate group. As hate speech, it cited his writings on his website that declare homosexuality a curable mental illness and state that same-sex marriage leads to child endangerment, incest and bestiality.

: This is terrible. This is not right. You don't put us with the Ku Klux Klan. We're completely opposite that.

BURNETT: Brown says he believes it has become dangerous to question the gay rights movement as it gains more and more momentum. Further, the pastor believes, he has become the victim of religious persecution.

: Who knows if the gay rights get their way, that if some gay couple wants to get married in my church, I say no, they'll say, well, you got to, or we'll take away your tax rights, or you'll have to start paying property taxes, because that's discrimination. Who knows what they'll do?

BURNETT: The target of the recall election, El Paso Mayor John Cook, a devout Catholic, senses the way the wind is blowing. More and more cities are changing their policies to recognize same-sex partners. With the recall effort dead, the city of El Paso will next ask voters in May to amend the city charter to extend anti-discrimination protections to gay and transgender people. Brown and a group of 40 other conservative pastors are fighting that one too. Mayor Cook takes a long view.

MAYOR JOHN COOK: Put yourselves 25 years from now. Will this even be an issue or will people look back, like my grandchildren do right now? They look back and they say, grandpa, they really didn't treat black people different, did they? I mean, we didn't really make black people drink out of different water fountains and sit in the back of buses, did we? And I think we're going to end up 25 years from now saying we didn't really treat gay people different, did we?

BURNETT: The opponents of legalizing gay marriage also take a long view. They look to the Bible. Indeed, Tom Brown seems to be steeling himself if the Supreme Court rules one way.

: And just because some judge defines this or that doesn't make it so. Marriage is just between a man and a woman, and it's just as simple as that.

BURNETT: His wife Sonia, a vivacious 49-year-old assistant pastor, is of the same mind. She is asked what she thinks of the nine states that have already made gay marriage legal.

SONIA BROWN: It was the judges that made those decisions. It wasn't the people. Marriage is between a man and a woman. I believe that that is what majority of Americans believe.

BURNETT: It's not anymore. There has been a dramatic shift toward the acceptance of the idea of gay marriage. Most recent polls show that Americans now favor same-sex marriage by margins of four to 22 points, though substantial numbers still oppose it. The new attitudes are driven in part by young adults who are far more open to gay rights than their parents and by Americans who have friends and relatives who are gay. Just a few years ago, polls showed the opposite: majorities of Americans rejected marriage between homosexuals. Today, this once-dominant group appears to be losing ground. John Burnett, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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