Hundreds of Christians face jail time in El Paso
EL PASO, Texas — Hundreds of Christians and other El Paso citizens are facing jail time for exercising their constitutionally protected right to speak out against Mayor John Cook’s policies.
The Alliance Defense Fund and a team of allies filed an expedited petition with the Texas Supreme Court Wednesday after a state appeals court stopped a recall election against the mayor and two city council members and ordered the decertification of recall petition signatures. In the wake of the ruling, El Paso District Attorney Jaime Esparza subpoenaed the petitions and convened a grand jury to proceed with possible criminal indictment of those behind the petition effort.
“El Paso citizens should not live in fear of being arrested and jailed for exercising their constitutionally protected right to free speech,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Joel Oster, who argued before the appeals court on Jan. 24 in Cook v. Tom Brown Ministries. “We have more than 250 signed affidavits from local citizens who are terrified that they may go to jail for their legitimate political and free speech efforts. This is America, and the mayor can’t be allowed to put his opponents in jail just because he doesn’t like the fact that they participated in a valid effort that he doesn’t favor.”
Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Raul Gonzalez, ADF-allied attorney and election law expert James Bopp, ADF-allied attorneys with Liberty Institute, and local counsel Theresa Cabellero and Stuart Leeds have all joined with ADF lead attorneys to represent the constitutionally protected rights of El Paso citizens. In addition to the expedited petition, the legal team also filed a motion to stay the appellate court ruling, which would put it on hold until the high court decides the matter.
Cook filed suit last year against Tom Brown Ministries, Word of Life Church of El Paso, El Pasoans for Traditional Family Values, and other local citizens who circulated recall petitions. Cook cited a Texas election law, arguing that it prohibits churches from circulating a petition. ADF attorneys have filed a separate federal suit against the law to have it declared unconstitutional.
A state judge denied Cook’s request for a preliminary injunction to stop the election, but the Court of Appeals for the 8th District of Texas issued an order to halt the election and decertify the petition signatures on Feb. 17. Esparza’s decision to convene a grand jury means that Brown and others in the recall effort could be indicted, arrested, and jailed.
The situation began in November 2010 when El Paso voters, by popular petition, placed on the ballot and passed an ordinance prohibiting unmarried domestic partner benefits. Despite this, certain members of the city council voted to rescind the ordinance passed by the voters, and the mayor approved. In response to the council’s defiance of the people’s expressed will, a grassroots recall campaign sought to remove the mayor and council members who ignored the vote of the people.
- Pronunciation guide: Jaime (HI’-mee), Oster (OH’-stir), Cabellero (Kah-buh-YAIR’-oh)
ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.