Houston’s formidable anti-LGBTQ zealot Dave Welch wants to expand the influence of his U.S. Pastor Council beyond its current Texas boundaries, and he is off to a pretty good start with the recent indirect blessing of the Trump administration.
Two like-minded, powerful ministers who are equally committed to trampling on LGBT rights in their cities—Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church of Dallas and Pastor John Hagee of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio—officiated at the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem May 14, delivering the opening and closing prayers respectively. The appearances of both at the ceremony stunned many politicians and human rights leaders, not so much because of the pastors’ virulent anti-gay views, but instead owing to their unabashed condemnations of Jewish people.
Jeffress claims in sermons that Jews are going to hell, and Hagee dubs Hitler as a “hunter” commissioned and sent to earth by God to return Jews to Israel. The denunciations also extend to Muslims, Mormons and even the Catholic Church. The discriminatory language is common to Southern Baptist theology, which threatens the faithful with hellfire and damnation if they stray.
The reach of the Southern Baptist ministry is long in Texas, and that includes the state’s most liberal city. In February 2017, Christian pastors gathered at Hyde Park Baptist Church in Austin to develop strategy for promoting anti-transgender “bathroom bills.” With that addition, a network of anti-LGBTQ institutions come to play in all of Texas’ largest cities. Not all of the pastors are members of Welch’s council, but they all share a common goal—to suppress and reverse LGBTQ equality gains.
In the past, smaller towns and cities represented the stronghold of conservative religious political control, but that could change. Texas’ larger cities could come under a heavier coordinated attack from conservatives aiming to turn back LGBTQ progress.
Since Welch founded the U.S. Pastor Council, also known as the Houston Area Pastor Council and the Texas Pastor Council, in 2012, the organization has grown slowly but powerfully nonetheless.Despite yearly budgets reflecting total contributions of only $1.8 million in five years, according to the nonprofit’s Form 990 for 2016, the group convinced voters to shoot down Houston’s anti-bias ordinance protecting LGBTQ people in 2015. In that election year, the group raised $833,749, by far the largest fundraising year in its history.
The group’s success overturning the ordinance surprised many because in 2009 Houston voters elected an out lesbian, Annise Parker, as mayor. By organizing church congregations in Houston, Welch and his team of strident pastors managed to strike fear in conservative voters in 2016 with the slogan, “No Men in Women’s Restrooms,” a version of the debunked transgender bathroom myth. In 2017, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that same-sex spouses of government employees are not entitled to marriage benefits, a decision that grew out of a lawsuit filed in 2013 by a pastor council member who objected to Mayor Parker’s plan to award spousal benefits to same-sex couples working for the City of Houston.
As executive director, president and the only employee of the council at a salary of $95,090 as of 2016, Welch makes no secret of his ambition to grow the organization to influence voting patterns nationwide. He started the movement in 2003 when he formed the Houston Area Pastor Council with 12 associate pastors. That group served as the nucleus for the current council, which boasts a membership of 200 pastor members in the Houston area and pastor councils in Austin, Beaumont, Corpus Christi, El Paso, Fort Bend County, Montgomery County, and Waco. If Welch continues his success, he will easily recruit pastors in other states who will want to follow his model and form their own councils to achieve political gains favorable to conservative religious interests.
The councils orchestrate the involvement of pastors in influencing how congregants vote by distributing voter guides, registering congregants to vote and discussing politics and religion with congregants—all questionable activities as regards the status of tax-exempt entities for religious purposes.
Prior to forming the Houston Pastor Council in 2003, Welch served as the executive director of Vision America from 1999 to 2001. It is another national conservative religious organization operating in Keller, Texas, that opposes LGBTQ rights. It is led by John Graves, who is the president of the organization. Vision America’s founder, Rick Scarborough, moved to Washington, D.C. in March to lobby Congress, and much of his work will focus on fighting LGBTQ rights.
Another foe of LGBT rights with whom Welch serves an allegiance is Jonathan M. Saenz, president of Texas Values, the chief anti-LGBTQ lobbying group in Austin.
LGBTQ rights is not Welch’s only focus, but it is the one that gains him the most publicity and contributions. He also decries abortion rights, the evolvement of the Boy Scouts, any efforts to regulate the sale of guns and any other progressive cause.
Welch attributed the defeat of anti-trans bathroom legislation in 2017 to corporate interests, or “fat cats” as he called them, who feared such legislation would harm business in the state. In the wake of the loss, he vowed that he and his associates would continue to fight any measure that benefits the LGBTQ community. That includes, the right to marry, despite its guarantee in the Constitution as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015.
The views of conservatives like Welch, Jeffress, Hagee, Graves, Scarborough and Saenz pose the greatest threat to LGBTQ people seen in many decades. The new political and social climate ushered in by the election of Donald J. Trump as president created a hotbed for the spread of intolerance and dissension in American society. Texas already fostered the climate, but it is now more dangerous. It makes dedication to maintaining human rights gains as important as seeking new advancements.