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Evangelicals Challenge Texas Election Law

EL PASO (CN) - Members of an evangelical church say they face felony charges if they violate a Texas law that prohibits churches from circulating petitions to hold a recall election. The Jesus Chapel and its pastor say the mayor of El Paso is enforcing the illegal law to stop church members from petitioning for his recall.

A different evangelical minister led an unsuccessful effort this summer to recall Mayor John Cook and City Council members Steve Ortega and Susie Byrd, according to Ballotpedia.org, which tracks citizens' initiatives.

That recall effort targeted the three officials after the City Council voted to reinstate health benefits to city employees who were homosexual, unmarried partners. The Council acted after a voter-approved ordinance in May this year stripped gay couples of benefits, "while also inadvertently taking benefits away from a number of unintended groups such as retirees," according to Ballotpedia.

That recall effort sparked a legal wrangle similar to this one, which BallotPedia summarizes.

In the new complaint, the Rev. H. Warren Hoyt says he was forced to sue "to protect the rights of a church and its pastor to freely and publicly exercise their Christian faith and to speak out on matters vitally important to the community."

"Plaintiffs desire to seek the recall of the mayor, as well as Representative Steve

Ortega and Representative Susie Byrd," the complaint states.

(Ortega and Byrd are not federal or state representatives, but members of El Paso's City Council.)

Hoyt claims the state Election Code violates the federal and state constitutions.

"The Election Code states, 'A corporation or labor organization may not make a political contribution in connection with a recall election, including the circulation and submission of a petition to call an election,'" the complaint states.

"The Mayor is enforcing the Election Code to prohibit churches and their members from circulating petitions to hold recall elections.

"The District Attorney is interpreting the Election Code to prohibit churches and their members from circulating petitions to recall elections, and conducting ongoing investigations of churches and their members who are suspected of violating the Election Code. ...

"The Mayor is using the color of law to suppress the Plaintiffs' constitutional rights, including their rights to petition the government for the redress of grievances, free speech, free association, free exercise of religion, equal protection, due process, as well as their rights under the establishment clause. These constitutional rights are rooted in both the United States Constitution and the Texas Constitution.

"In addition, Texas Election Code § 253.094(b) (the 'Election Code') is unconstitutional. It is being enforced to ban political speech by a church, specifically, 'the circulation and submission of a petition to call an election.'

"Due to the Mayor's actions and the Election Code, the Plaintiffs' speech has been chilled, and will continue to be chilled in the future, unless the Court enters the relief requested."

Hoyt wants seeks an injunction.

He is represented by Kevin Theriot, with the Alliance Defense Fund, of Leawood, Kan.

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