Grace Community Church Pastor Steve Riggle says he is not anti-gay nor a “gay-hater,” noting that he had prayed with gay people dying of AIDS.
Houston’s Grace Community Church is known for it’s “outreach” as long as you are not gay or have HIV/AIDS. The church routinely helps with rent, payments for medication and other in kind services for people in need but several Houstonians say Steve Riggle’s church has denied them because they have AIDS. Now taking advantage of his mega-church pulpit on Sunday morning, Pastor Steve Riggleof Houston’s Grace Community Church advanced his crusade against Mayor Annise Parker’s public support for same-sex marriage by urging Houston’s lesbian mayor to either stand up for traditional marriage “or do the honorable thing and step down.”
Speaking at the congregation’s 10 a.m. service, Riggle promised some 3,000 worshippers “the shortest sermon that has ever been preached in this congregation.” After reading 25 Bible versions of the Genesis account of marriage as a man “leaving his father and mother and being joined to his wife,” Riggle spent the next 50 minutes reading a letter he wrote to Parker last week, summarizing her response and then reading a new letter he has written to the mayor. In January, Parker joined her colleagues at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C., in calling for legalization of same-sex marriage. She also proclaimed Valentine’s Day as Freedom to Marry Day in Houston and said on cable radio that President Obama needs to “evolve” toward support of marriage equality.
“Houston is a city supportive of equal rights and tolerant of opposing opinions – a city where individuals may disagree with one another without being personal,” Parker said in a prepared statement Sunday. “I am standing with 160 mayors, including other Texas mayors, who have taken the same public position. My focus remains on creating jobs and building a safer city.” At the morning service, Riggle also objected to the description of Parker’s partner as “the First Lady of Houston.” “While you are certainly entitled to your personal views and lifestyle that does not embrace traditional marriage – even if I happen to disagree with those views, and I do – it is very disturbing to me when you’ve made statements as an elected official that are contrary to what the people have decided should be the foundational values and definitions that define our culture,” Riggle said, reading from his initial letter to Parker.
Delivering his marriage jeremiad in calm, measured tones, Riggle accused the mayor of violating both the Texas and U.S. constitutions she had sworn to uphold. He noted that in 2005, Texans approved a constitutional amendment that defined marriage solely as between one man and one woman. He noted that 76 percent of those voting approved the amendment, including 72 percent in Harris County. “Respectfully, if you cannot uphold the Texas Constitution, then you should do the honorable thing and step down,” Riggle said. His congregation responded with the first of numerous ovations. “When you speak for us as the mayor of Houston, when the people of Houston have overwhelmingly expressed their will and you speak about this issue without their expressed will, I do have a problem with that,” he said.
Asked about Riggle’s message last week, Parker said, “I do my duty to uphold the state Constitution and the U.S. Constitution. I swore an oath to that. I take that oath very seriously, but I have my First Amendment rights to free speech. We all have that right and I’m sorry that they don’t understand the Constitution.” Riggle denied the mayor’s charge that he was acting out of personal animus. “I made it clear that I did not write to you because you are gay,” Riggle said, quoting from his response to the mayor. “I wrote to you because as the mayor you have chosen to advocate for what the citizens of Houston and the citizens of Texas have overwhelmingly spoken against.” He said that he was not anti-gay nor a “gay-hater,” noting that he had prayed with gay people dying of AIDS. “Just because I disagree with the life style choices that people make does not mean that I hate the people who make those choices,” Riggle said, as his listeners responded with applause.
Responding to Parker’s claim that she had received hate mail from so-called religious-right activists, Riggle said he apologized if she had received anything from Grace members that could be classified as hate mail. “Just so you are aware,” he said, “this week I have been called an idiot, stupid, a dirt bag …,” he said. “That is all from just one group that claims to represent your community.” Offering a long list of social services provided by the 15,000-member Grace Community Church, including assistance during Hurricane Ike, Riggle also noted that the Harris County Republican Partywill be using the Grace Community Church building as the site of its county convention in April. He maintained that the congregation has offered its building for community use from the beginning. “”As far as I know, the Democratshave never asked,” he said.
Riggle’s feud with the mayor isn’t the first time he’s been involved in issues involving elected officials. In 2008, Americans United for Separation of Church and State accused Riggle of violating federal tax law by endorsing a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives. The minister concluded his remarks Sunday morning with an allusion to Joshua, recalling that the Old Testament figure drew a line in the sand and urged the people of Israel to declare which side of the line they would be on. Unfurling a blue rope on the Grace Church stage, Riggle urged his listeners to stand up and declare their support for the proposition that marriage is between one man and one woman. The congregation responded with a sustained standing ovation.
“We believe in Christian values, and she’s imposing her personal values on this city,” said Grace Church member Katherine Hayes, who teaches nursing at San Jacinto College and who frequently applauded her pastor’s remarks about the Houston mayor. “According to the Constitution and the Word of God, it is ordained by God that marriage is between one man and one woman.” “It’s not directed toward her personally,” said Anthony Hayes, her husband. “According to the oath she took, she has to uphold the Constitution.” The last time I checked, Mayor Parker has not performed gay marriage ceremonies, therefore, I am not sure how Riggle thinks she is not supporting the constitution. On the other hand, denying people with AIDS help could present some problems with the feds. This could get very interesting.