El Paso Church’s Recall Effort Violated Election Laws, State Court Says

An El Paso, Texas, congregation that spearheaded a campaign to recall the city’s mayor and two city council members has been found guilty of violating state election law.

The political saga 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 through 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 Trad¬i¬tional 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 up¬set at this action and would like to sign and/or circulate a recall petition against Mayor John Cook and Rep¬resen¬tatives Susie Byrd and Steve Or¬tega, 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 organized and coordinated the recall campaign, taking the lead role in circulating petitions. The congregation 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.

Cook sued to stop the election.

County Court Judge Javier Alvarez initially 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. On appeal, the Texas 8th Court of Appeals rejected Alvarez’s reasoning. Ruling unanimously, the court criticized Alvarez and made it clear that the state’s laws must be enforced.

“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,” the panel held.

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, refused to comment after the ruling.

Brown attacked the appeals court and has vowed 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.

Brown’s troubles may not be 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 investigate Brown’s partisan political activities and, if he is found in violation of the law, to revoke his ministry’s tax-exempt status.