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On a recent foggy night in League City, the Lord patiently waited His turn on a heavy City Council agenda. Councilmembers heard lesser speakers fight over the installation of a new traffic signal on Wesley Drive. Then came kids' baseball supporters, wanting $1,500 to underwrite opening-day fireworks. The council diplomatically denied the request. After all, officials explained, that's the kind of non-municipal matter that local government can't be involving itself in.
Councilmembers waded through action on sanitary sewers, rezonings, drainage and a lift station project -- the standard stuff of suburban cities anywhere. But the routine works in mysterious ways in League City. That happens with a council controlled by the religious right.
Half the crowd had vanished into the low-visibility darkness by about 9:30 p.m., when Resolution 2000-05 took center stage at City Hall. Five godly principles were up for adoption.
No backup material from public works accompanied this item. In fact, the city staff stayed neutral, not weighing in with a recommendation for or against. A concerned Councilman Ed Sebesta noted that "In the past we have had lawsuits." He asked: Had League City's legal counsel reviewed the matter? No, the city attorney answered, acknowledging that "it is fodder for the grist mill."
That was the extent of council's discussion on the resolution. Godly principles propose that there is a Creator who makes all things and governs by his Providence. The Creator has a moral code, the godly principles state. There is an afterlife, and "in the next life, individuals are judged by the Creator for the conduct in this one."
Councilmembers embraced the resolution with a unanimous vote. They'd already passed a measure for a water purification plant. Now they were doing their part to purify the souls of the citizenry as well.
A few weeks before, like-minded Friendswood, a prairie and a grove of trees away, officially adopted the same godly principles.
Those city councils appear to be unconcerned with such pesky things as religious multiculturalism, or even the First or Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. In fact, the town's mayor, Tommy Frankovich, a sixth-grade teacher at the fundamentalist Bay Area Christian School, believes that modern interpretations of the framers' intentions are all wrong, and his friends have the 18th-century dictionaries to prove it.
While there would be hollering in Houston if city officials tried to ram such resolutions through, the notion of the separation of church and state doesn't seem to have made it into these suburbs to the south.
Christian activist politicians in League City have in some ways reinvented the way local government does business. Opponents, such as former mayor Pat Hallisey, say they feel the wrath of the righteous:
Hallisey, a practicing Roman Catholic, says, "If you are not one of them, you couldn't believe in God."
Judith Schaeffer of the Washington, D.C.-based People for the American Way, says it's another attempt to turn the U.S. into "a religious society" by stamping a particular brand of "godly principles" on the public. "People who pass resolutions like this are acting to destroy religious freedom and freedom of conscience."
Fundamentalists' influence at City Hall shows itself outwardly in subtle ways. This is no longer just League City. It is now known as a "City of Character."
League City shares that slogan with some other communities, as part of a Bible-based curriculum created by an Oklahoma City nonprofit called Character First. Each month is devoted to a different buzzword touting a moral value.
Water customers in January got their city letters citing utility usage figures, sewer and solid waste disposal fees, water bills -- and a reminder exhorting them to think in terms of "generosity."
Lest there be any misunderstanding, the one-word themes are followed up with more detailed instructions or quotes by names from history. February's "orderliness" is defined as "arranging my life and surroundings to achieve the greatest productivity." In case anyone misses it on the bills, the mini-message is prominently displayed in city council chambers, which doubles as Municipal Court.
Mayor Frankovich is the architect for this municipal fervor. He attributes his constant smile to the "spirit I have inside me."
He seems comfortable in his role as leader of the seven-member council. That's surprising, considering that he won his last election by only four votes, and the previous one by 39 -- hardly a mandate.
The mayor says he learned of the Character First program when he picked up materials from the Oklahoma nonprofit during a conference in Indianapolis. It sells services to businesses and government through seminars, according to Jerry Coury, Character First assistant director.
Character First has been used by ten other small U.S. cities, all in the south. They include the Texas towns of Temple, Burleson and Glen Rose, he says. Coury apparently isn't irate that League City never paid the $1,250 for use of the program. "If a city is committed to true character development, we waive our fee," he says.
But there have been some costs -- legal defense costs -- to League City's conversion to the Christian right.
Former city attorney Mark Sokolow, who is Jewish, filed a federal lawsuit accusing the city of religious discrimination. The case challenged the city's invocations and alleged that City Hall practiced secular intolerance that included anti-Semitic remarks. "The mayor has informed others that they should seek salvation only through Jesus Christ and this has been repeated by Senior City staff," Sokolow said in court documents.