Episcopal Church issues veiled threat to move GC over proposed Texas bathroom law
General Convention was moved once before over racism issues in Houston
By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
Feb. 9, 2017
The Episcopal General Convention is scheduled to meet next summer in Austin, the Lone Star State's capitol city, where July temperatures easily soar into the triple digits beneath a blazing Texas sun suspended in a cloudless azure sky.
However, as the Episcopal Executive Council prepared to meet in Lithicum Heights, Maryland, the two presiding officers of General Convention -- Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and House of Deputies President Gay Clark Jennings -- penned a joint letter to the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) protesting Texas' latest privacy bill which, if passed, would "require Texas residents to use bathrooms according to their sex designation on their birth certificate. It would also prohibit local governments from passing laws that protect gay rights in 'intimate settings' such as public restrooms."
The "Texas Privacy Act," was launched on Jan. 5 as Senate Bill 6, by Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) and is strongly supported by Texas Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. The lieutenant governor, a Baptist, is also the president of the Texas Senate.
"If passed," the Austin Chronicle reports, "SB 6 will overwrite local nondiscrimination ordinances in cities like Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio."
By percentage (5.3%) Austin has the third largest homosexuals/bisexuals/and so called transgenders population of any American city. It ranks third behind Portland, Oregon (5.4%) and San Francisco (6.2%).
"Privacy and safety is our first priority, not political correctness," Lt. Gov. Patrick explained while Sen. Kolkhorst, a Lutheran, said that she filed SB6 "not to start a controversy, but to end one."
"It's the right thing to do," the Lieutenant Governor noted. "I know it, Texans know it and Sen. Kolkhorst knows it."
STATES FIGHTING BATHROOM BATTLES
Texas joins the growing list of states trying to combat creeping homosexuals/bisexuals/and so called transgenders demands for equal bathroom rights -- the insistence that any transgendered person -- transmale or transfemale -- can go into any public restroom facility, regardless of how God created them and how their biological sex is reflected on their birth certificate. Jean, a school girl, wants the legal right to go into a boys' school bathroom because she feels like she is a "male" and thus calls herself Gene. Meanwhile, Robert Lee, an adult man, wants legal protection to use the University of Texas ladies' dressing room because he wants to join the Longhorn cheerleaders in his newly-found femininity as he refers to himself as "Bobbie Leigh." The Presiding Bishop and HOD President concur and, if the State of Texas doesn't, well, The Episcopal Church might just pack up and move the 2018 General Convention to a more "welcoming state for all of God's children."
In the letter to Speaker Straus, who is Jewish, Presiding Bishop Curry and President Jennings decried the growing number of "bathroom bills" making their way through various state legislatures, including Illinois, Michigan, New York, Massachusetts, Kentucky and Texas.
"As you are no doubt aware, this is not the first time that the segregation of bathrooms and public facilities has been used to stigmatize minority groups," the General Convention leadership wrote. "'Bathroom bills,' as they are sometimes called, were passed during the Jim Crow era, and the bogus rationale advanced then is the same bogus rationale being advanced now: the safety of women and children who are no way under threat."
In addition to the six states with current bathroom bills working through the legislative process, at least 14 other states have tried and failed to pass a public restroom privacy laws including: Washington, Nevada, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Florida, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Tennessee, South Carolina, Mississippi, Indiana, and Virginia. One state -- South Dakota -- passed a bathroom bill, but it was vetoed by the governor and only one state -- North Carolina -- managed to pass a Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, which is now a Tar Heel State law.
"The need for voices of conscience is urgent at this moment, because laws like the one proposed in Texas target some of the most vulnerable people in our communities," the pair wrote.
Although Speaker Straus is a Republican, the Episcopalians see him as an ally in their public bathroom usage battle.
He has been quoted as saying that SB6 is "not the most urgent concern of mine" and that the Texas Legislature should "be very careful about doing something that can make Texas less competitive for investment, jobs, and the highly-skilled workforce needed to compete."
Texas is a politically and religiously conservative state. As a "red state" it has consistently voted Republican on presidential elections since 1980. Most recently, President Donald Trump carried Texas by 52% over Hillary Clinton's 43%. The state also has a Catholic Republican Governor, Greg Abbott, and a Republican-controlled state legislature with 20 (R) to 11 (D) in the Senate and 95 (R) to 55 (D) in the House.
Texas also sent 25 Republicans and 11 Democrats to Washington, and both US Senators are Republican. Sen. John Cornyn is the Senate Majority Whip. He goes to the Church of Christ, while Sen. Ted Cruz is a Baptist.
As a Bible belt state, 77% of Texans are Christians. Of that number, 50% are Protestant and 23% are Roman Catholics. Of the Protestants, 31% are Evangelicals, while 13% come from mainline churches such as The Episcopal Church. Austin is in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. The large Texas diocese has 75,421 Texans who claim to be Episcopalian. There are 10 Episcopal Churches in Austin, including St. David's, which was the first Texas Episcopal church to hold a gay wedding which, in 2013, was considered a "groundbreaking liturgical rite."
"For us, as Episcopalians, the proposed Texas law is of particular concern. We are currently scheduled to hold our triennial General Convention -- a nine-day event that includes as many as 10,000 people -- in Austin in July 2018," the Presiding Bishop and HOD President Jennings carefully explained to Speaker Straus. "Our church is proudly diverse: racially, economically, and in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity. At our conventions, we are duty-bound to ensure that all of our people are treated with respect, that their safety is guaranteed, and that our investment in the local economy of our host city reflects our values."
Then the General Convention leadership duo dropped a bombshell.
"In 1955 we were forced to move a General Convention from Houston to another state because Texas laws prohibited black and white Episcopalians from being treated equally," they wrote. "We would not stand then for Episcopalians to be discriminated against, and we cannot countenance it now. We would be deeply grieved if Senate Bill 6 presented us with the same difficult choice that church leaders faced more than sixty years ago."
Honolulu's Iolani School written history shows that in 1955, Presiding Episcopal Bishop, Henry Knox Sherrill, made a middle of the night call to Missionary Bishop of Hawaii, Harry Kennedy, requesting that his foreign missionary diocese host the upcoming LVIII General Convention. It was felt that there was an urgent need to move the confab from Houston because there was racial segregation, discrimination and tension in post WWII America.
This came on the heels of the 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision which ruled that segregated public schools were unconstitutional. Arguing the case before the Supreme Court was a feisty NAACP attorney, Thurgood Marshall, who was Episcopalian.
Marshall, who eventually went on to become a Supreme Court Associate Justice in 1967, was one of the high profile black forces behind moving General Convention to Hawaii. First, he had Hawaiian ties. As a widower, he had married a Hawaiian-born Filipino, and then he was fully aware of the impact that segregation laws had, especially in the South and in cities like Houston, Texas.
Moving the Convention from Texas to Hawaii was a major task. Hawaii was still a tropical island territory until it became a full-fledged state in 1959. Until the Episcopalians came to town, the largest convention the island of Oahu had hosted was 700 Shriners in 1951. Now 3,500 Episcopalians were about to descend on Honolulu, from Sept. 4-15, 1955. What were all the logistics to make it happen. Could it be done. Would there be enough housing. Would there be a place large enough to accommodate the various needs of the church's convention.
Houston was originally chosen as the 1955 site for General Convention because of its explosive growth and potential for the rapidly growing post WWII Episcopal Church. The Iolani School Board of Governors thought it over and reached out to issue an invitation -- Come to Hawaii.
"It is wonderful for us to have the Convention here, since it will be the first one held outside the continental United States and in a missionary district," Bishop Kennedy said at the time.
"The segregation issue loomed over the start of the Convention but ultimately receded in the friendly environs of Hawaii," the Iolani School recorded history states. "Church and civic leaders worked hard to welcome visitors, especially those from the South."
Iolani School was originally founded in 1863 by Father William R. Scott during the reign of Hawaiian King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma and it quickly became the principal school of the former Anglican Church of Hawaii. Now, as a part of the Episcopal Diocese of Hawaii, Iolani School is one of the largest private independent schools in the United States.
The 1955 General Convention is the only time Convention has been held away from the mainland of the United States on foreign soil, as well as the only time it has been held in Hawaii. General Convention eventually returned to Houston in 1970, which was the only time Convention has successfully met in Texas. Currently, General Convention is slated to be held in Austin from July 5-13, 2018. The Convention's announced theme is to be: The Jesus Movement -- Loving, Liberating & Life-giving.
It remains to be seen if plans are fulfilled or if they will be jettisoned, depending on how the Texas legislature votes on the Texas Privacy Act.
Presiding Bishop Curry told VOL during Wednesday afternoon's Executive Council telenews conference that "The letter cited some historical precedent in the past, but we did not state what we would be doing in the future. Our goal was to state clearly our opposition to this legislation on the moral grounds of how all human beings should be treated."
A DROP IN THE BUCKET
With a population of just shy of one million people, Austin draws more than two million visitors to town each year. The Austin Convention Center, where General Convention is to be held, hosts multiple conventions daily. More than 1,000 conventions are held at the convention center during a calendar year. Ten thousand Episcopalians coming to town is just a drop in the bucket. Some large conventions, such as the South by Southwest, the ever-growing annual conglomerate music-interactive media-film festival, will draw 250,000 enthusiastic fans. If SXSW left town that would leave a large gaping hole in Austin's yearly conventioneers to a city which is billed as the Live Music Capital of the World.
Austin is also the home to the University of Texas Longhorns football, basketball and baseball, as well as Round Rock Express AAA baseball, Texas Stars ice hockey, Austin Spurs NBA-D basketball, Austin Aztec soccer, Austin Outlaws women's football, Austin Huns rugby, and the Austin Sol ultimate frisbee league. Austin-based college and semi-professional sports draw in another 150,000 athletic fans to the Lone Star State's capitol city.
The Episcopal Church is already looking beyond the 2018 General Convention, wherever it may be held. This week the Executive Committee announced that the 2021 General Convention is to be held in Baltimore, Maryland, for the first time in more than 100 years. There have only been three General Conventions held in Baltimore, all held during the 19th century. The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, one of the "Original Nine" Episcopal dioceses, hosted the 1808, 1871 and the 1892 General Conventions.
Maryland is very homosexuals/bisexuals/and so called transgenders friendly and has enacted transgendered rights through the Fairness for All Marylanders Act. As a blue state, Maryland voted Democratic in presidential elections since 1992. It voted 60% for Clinton to 34% for Trump.
There are more than 22,000 Episcopalians in the state of Maryland, divided between the Episcopal dioceses of Maryland, Easton and Washington, DC.
Even though General Convention has met in Maryland three times, the Executive Council frequently meets at the Maritime Institute in Lithicum Heights, a suburb of Baltimore. That is where Executive Council met this week.
Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline
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