A day before the Texas Legislature ended its special session this week, a session that included a high-profile fight over a bathroom bill that appeared almost certainly dead, David Welch had a message for Gov. Greg Abbott: call lawmakers back to Austin. Again.
For years, Welch, executive director of the Texas Pastor Council, has worked to pass a bill that would ban local policies that ensured transgender individuals’ right to use restrooms in public schools and government buildings that match their gender identity. The summer special session, which was quickly coming to a close, had been Welch and other social conservatives’ second chance, an overtime round after the bill — denounced by critics as discriminatory and unnecessary — failed during the regular session that ended in May.
But with the Texas House unlikely to vote on a bathroom bill, Welch gathered with some of the most conservative Republicans in that chamber to make a final plea. The bill, they argued without any evidence, would prevent men from entering bathrooms to sexually assault or harass women.
“If this does not pass during this special session, we are asking for, urgently on behalf of all these pastors across the state of Texas, that we do hold a second special session until the job is done,” Welch said at the press event, hosted by Texas Values, a socially conservative group.
Though the group of lawmakers, religious leaders and activists were still coming to terms with their failure to get a bill to Abbott's desk, for Welch's Pastor Council, the years-long fight over bathroom restrictions has nonetheless been a galvanizing campaign.
The group, which Welch founded in 2003, has grown from a local organization to a burgeoning statewide apparatus with eyes on someday becoming a nationwide force, one able to mobilize conservative Christians around the country into future political battles. If Abbott doesn't call lawmakers back for another special session to pass a bathroom bill, the group is likely to shift its attention to the 2018 elections.
“Our role in this process shouldn’t be restricted just because people attend church,” Welch told The Texas Tribune. “Active voting, informed voting, is a legitimate ministry of the church.”
A pastor for pastors
Welch has made a career out of mixing the religious and the political. Before founding the Pastors Council, he spent time at the Christian Coalition and Vision America, a controversial national evangelical group led by Rick Scarborough, a Texas pastor. And just before he founded the Pastor Council, Welch briefly worked as the executive director of the Republican Party in Harris County, where he would get to know many of the politicians that would animate his later campaigns. Welch said he has known Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, one of the most outspoken proponents of a bathroom bill in state government, since he was a radio host in Houston.
But it was with the Pastor Council — at first a small group of Houston pastors — that Welch would begin to make his deepest mark in Texas politics.
“We formed the Houston area pastor council in 2003 as a group of 12 pastors, across racial and denominational lines, to engage together on a variety of social moral cultural issues,” he said.
That initial group has since expanded into two additional entities, the Texas Pastor Council and the US Pastor Council, though the distinctions between the groups can be murky. Welch — who himself no longer preaches, instead referring to himself as a “pastor for pastors” — leads all three groups, and the main phone number for the US Pastor Council is a direct line to Welch.
The group, according to Welch, has taken on a range of issues, from criminal justice reform to child foster care. But over the course of his career, Welch and the group have had a decided preoccupation with attacking LGBT rights, what Welch describes as “the continued tide of the radical political LGBTQ movement trying to work to undermine traditional marriage and traditional family.” On the US Pastor Council website, the only “current issue” listed is “Woman’s Privacy Protection,” a page that features a number of talking points in favor of a bathroom bill.
“They have made anti-LGBT activism their primary focus," said Dan Quinn, communications director for Texas Freedom Network, a liberal watchdog group. "They’ve had their most public efforts trying to defeat anything that protects equality for LGBT Texans.”
Over the course of several years as a columnist for World Net Daily, a far-right website known for hosting conspiracy theories, Welch railed against same-sex marriage and legal protections for LGBT individuals. In a 2009 post titled “When the Wicked Rule,” Welch attacked a new federal law that protected LGBT individuals from hate crimes as condoning “every possible form of sexual deviancy.” He denounced the “radical sexual-deviancy jihad” in a post called “My Gay America” in 2010.
“Lesbian Mayor Annise Parker has gone above and beyond to now extend protection through executive orders to ‘gender identity’ and ‘gender expression,’” he wrote at the time. “Keep your wives and daughters out of Houston city restrooms.”
That rhetoric against Parker – the first openly gay mayor of a large American city — and legal protections for LGBT individuals in Houston would eventually become talking points against the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, which would have made it illegal to discriminate against someone based on 15 different “protected characteristics,” including sex, race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity.
During that fight — which concluded with Houston residents voting overwhelmingly to strike down the nondiscrimination ordinance — Welch played a leading role in both the electoral and legal campaigns against the city. Jared Woodfill, one of the lead organizers against the HERO ordinance in Houston, said that Welch and his organization were “extremely instrumental” in gathering the signatures that would ultimately prompt the lawsuit and referendum overturning the ordinance.
Indeed, organizing and mobilizing voters is a key part of the Pastor Council's mission. Its website boasts pages titled “Every Christian Votes” and the “AMERICA plan.” Under the “AMERICA plan,” pastors are encouraged to communicate with congregants about political issues, distribute voter guides and register “every eligible adult” to vote.
In other words, Welch had already established an infrastructure for turning out voters before the HERO referendum — a battle that helped elevate his organization and its platform. Randy Wilson, national field director for Church Ministries for the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council, which has worked with the Pastor Council, said this is easier said than done.
“Dave has to have an established and billed credibility with the pastors, a very untrusting demographic, really,” he said.
That credibility and visibility would only grow when the city issued subpoenas for sermons and other statements Welch and other members of the Pastors Council had made in support of a 2014 failed petition drive aimed at repealing HERO. That incident drew national attention, energizing conservatives across Texas and the country and landing Welch on national media. (In response to that incident, the Texas Legislature passed a law earlier this year shielding pastors' sermons from government subpoena power.)
“It certainly escalated some elements of what we do to a much higher level because of the visibility of that Houston battle,” Welch said. “That achieved national attention.”
With that momentum, Welch, Woodfill and other conservative activists began to look to the the Legislature as the next battleground for the issue. Welch would begin to use tactics that had worked in Houston — hosting workshops to educate pastors, blasting out emails on the issues and hosting rallies — on a statewide level.
“The network of churches that has become involved in this issue has become very, very important,” Woodfill said.“The same model is being used across the state of Texas.”
Despite those setbacks, the US Pastor Council itself has continued to grow, Welch said. According to tax documents on a database maintained by ProPublica, the US Pastor Council, which is registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charitable organization and does not disclose its donors, saw its revenue more than double from $329,696 to $833,749 between 2014 and 2015, the last year for which data is available and the year of the HERO ordinance vote in Houston.
Welch said the group does not buy large ad campaigns, instead focusing resources on hosting workshops and organizing among pastors.
“There aren’t many religious groups that overtly have this partisan affiliation or policy preference as pronounced as the Pastors Council,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “That’s been a major change we’ve seen since 2013 or 2014.”
With primary season approaching, members of the Pastor Council are preparing to take their campaign to the ballot box and unseat Republicans who did not do enough to challenge Straus' opposition to a "bathroom bill." Steve Riggle, a pastor to a congregation of more than 20,000 at Grace Community Church in Houston and a member of the Pastor Council, said he and others are talking about “how in the world do we have 90-some Republicans [in the 150-member Texas House] who won’t stand behind what they say they believe.”
“They’re more afraid of Straus than they are of us,” he said. “It’s about time they’re more afraid of us.”
"This is not over"
In early August, in the midst of the special session, Welch and dozens of other pastors descended on Austin. Hundreds of pastors had signed a letter in support of the bathroom legislation, and before heading inside, the group that had made the trip gathered on the Capitol steps for a brief rally.
Throughout his campaign for a bathroom bill, Welch has enjoyed easy access to the state's elected officials. He hosted a policy briefing in February that featured, among others, Patrick and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. The August rally, which the Texas Pastor Council had promoted as a response to "opponents of God's created order," was no exception.
State Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, and state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, the authors of bathroom bills in their chambers, both spoke to the importance of the bill as Welch acted as the effective emcee of the event, leading the crowd in chants of “Let the House vote.”
“We’re going to take this letter to the House as the voice of the state of Texas and our churches today,” Welch said.
But even as he represents pastors across the state, Welch and his work enjoy far from unanimous support from Christian and other religious leaders. During the regular session, about 50 faith leaders of various denominations lined the stairs outside the Texas House in protest of bills targeting LGBT Texans.
And just days before Welch arrived in Austin for the rally this month, dozens of religious leaders gathered in the very same spot to denounce the bill as discriminatory and hypocritical. In front of a crowd of more than one hundred supporters, an imam from Austin, as well as pastors and rabbis from across the state spoke about how their faith led them to oppose the legislation.
For Steve Wells, a self-described conservative pastor at the South Main Baptist Church in Houston, the campaign for the “bathroom bill” represents “bad theology.” He says he wishes that Welch and other like-minded pastors would focus more on the common dignity granted human beings.
“You will never in your lifetime meet someone who was not created in the image of God,” he said.
And in July, leaders of the national Episcopal Church sent a letter to Straus asking him to remain "steadfast" in his opposition to the legislation, also denouncing it as discriminatory.
Terri Burke, the executive director of the ACLU in Texas, described the “bathroom bill” as the latest frontier for far-right groups opposed to LGBT rights. Now that sexual orientation is largely protected under the law, she said, gender identity has become a target.
“I think those who want to discriminate have figured out LGB are hard to discriminate against, so they’ve pulled the T out,” she said.
To Welch and his fellow members on the Pastor Council, though, the group's positions are is well in line with the teachings of the Bible. And even if the death of the “bathroom bill” in the special session represents the loss of a single battle, the broader war continues.
“This is not over,” Riggle said.
Disclosure: The Texas Freedom Network has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.