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."
Battle of the Piney Woods: SFA vs. SHSU
TicketsSat., Oct. 1, 3:00pm
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. Tulsa Golden Hurricane Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 15, 11:00am
Rice University Owls Football vs. UTSA Roadrunners Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 15, 6:00pm
Rice University Owls Football vs. Prairie View A&M University Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 22, 2:30pm
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.
Sokolow, now city attorney in Port Arthur, was unavailable for comment. Hallisey also sued Frankovich for libel in state court, for political broadsides from a mayoral race. The Sokolow and Hallisey suits were dismissed, and the Christian ways continue around City Hall.
Long before the baptism of the religious right into local politics, influential banker Walter Hall, now in his nineties, controlled League City as part of his Democratic kingmaker role in Galveston County politics.
Former mayor Hallisey, a Hall ally, says that while the Christian right has been on the national scene since the early 1980s, that movement asserted itself in the local political scene much later.
"I started to see it in '94," Hallisey says. "That is when they really popped their head out as part of the Republican push that year." The Jesus juggernaut focused on Hallisey the following year, relying on a published hit sheet called Grassroots Gazette to help Frankovich narrowly topple him from a brief stint as mayor.
"What really got me personally was when Tommy Frankovich handed that rag sheet to my eight-year-old daughter, who saw her name in it," Hallisey says. "She brought it in to me."
The former mayor describes himself as a "good Catholic boy" and says he and other opponents of the current administration believe in family values and the need for a moral revolution -- they just don't think that religious agendas are appropriate at City Hall. "Any race with [Frankovich] brings great questions about your belief in God," Hallisey says. "If you don't come from their sect, or their group politically, they use it as a tool."
Hallisey believes he's a victim of the fundamentalists' national "stealth campaign" strategy to get religious activists elected by masking their underlying motives or hard-core beliefs until after they gain office.
The populace, however, has hardly pressured Frankovich or his fellow religious activists to abandon their Christian agenda for the city. Critics say the reason is simple: small-town apathy.
Even with the acrimony in the mayoral re-election race, only 12 percent of the voters turned out for Frankovich's latest close victory. "It all boils down to people going out and voting," says ten-year resident Steve Schechter, a moderate Republican sympathetic to core religious values. "When the majority of people don't vote, you get control by extremists."
Clear Lake lawyer Greg Enos, who is also concerned about the council's religious agenda, says residents aren't revolting because the administration takes care of the basic needs. "League City is a suburb," Enos says. "We've got good roads, a good fire department and good trash collection. People don't get involved. They're busy working, raising their kids and worrying about chinch bugs in the yard."
Council critics doubt if most residents even know about City Hall's religious ways, because the media makes scant mention of them. "That's why they get away with it," Enos says, telling of the vacant press ranks at meetings. "You seldom see the Citizen [newspaper]." The Galveston News reporter attends for the first hour, he says, and the Houston Chronicle is virtually nonexistent at the sessions.
In the beginning was the dark age a few years ago, before the creation of godly principles and the League City crusade. NASA engineer Charles Nagey says he looked through the history books used by his daughter and didn't like what he saw. An avid reader of writings by the nation's founding fathers, Nagey says his child's texts failed to reflect the religious heritage of the early American leaders, or the history books he read as a child. He does not cite his specific disagreements, saying it was too long ago.
"The tone and the overall depiction [of history] was different," Nagey says. "What [the textbooks] stood for was different." He researched the issue more and conferred with others in Internet chat rooms. He started his quest to weave quotes from forefathers into verbiage that affirmed that there was a deity, an afterlife and a Judgment Day.
"I am not implying that I have to believe that, or that you have to believe that -- the founders believed that," he says. Nagey stresses the founders' reliance on divine law, the law of an all-knowing God, in framing the U.S. form of government.
Other disciples joined his cause. In 1998 Nagey and several Friendswood couples, including Friendswood school board president Marta Bourgeois, created a nonprofit called One Nation Under God. Bourgeois adamantly insists the tax-exempt organization is independent of other movements, committed only to spreading the word of Nagey's interpretation of the principles.
Part of that pursuit involved a painting titled One Nation Under God; A Call to Remembrance. The group commissioned Friendswood watercolorist Laurie Whitehead to do an idealized work based on the organization's notion of religion's role in the nation's history.
One Nation's sales brochure offers art collectors a limited-edition print of Whitehead's creation for only $150, plus $5.50 for shipping and handling. For the budget-minded faithful, there's a One Nation Under God silk tie for $25, or an umbrella with the group's logo, marked down from $25 to $10.
Whitehead's painting, in addition to raising funds for the group, became the path for One Nation Under God into Congress. U.S. Representative Nick Lampson, hardly viewed as an ambassador of the hard-core Christian right, and House Republican Whip Tom DeLay introduced the group's resolution containing the godly principles to the House. Lampson, who says he believed the group members were just constituents wanting to express patriotism, had more problems with a second request -- to get the painting displayed in the Capitol and have it become part of the Capitol's formal collection of art.
Lampson enlisted the help of Doug Tanner, head of Washington's non-religious Faith in Politics, who soon saw trouble. "Doug noted very quickly that there was very little expression of black America in this painting," Lampson says. In the end, the Capitol architect's office, which oversees artwork, nixed the offer of the painting.
When it comes to getting God into government, Frankovich, Friendswood schools president Bourgeois and the other religious crusaders don't see what all the fuss is about.
The godly principles shouldn't be offensive to anybody because they "never mention Jesus Christ," Bourgeois says. "Our country's motto is In God We Trust. Why do we make people swear on a bible?" Frankovich says he supports the separation of church and state, and the principles don't require that citizens think alike. But he does want like-minded instructions in schools. "Public schools were first established to teach religion, morality and knowledge," Frankovich says. "You'd be surprised at how many young people aren't taught those principles."
To support his points, Frankovich cites the obscure Northwest Ordinances of 1785-87. These laws were set up to govern the Northwest Territories and their later admission into the United States. He says the religious references reflect the principles of the founding fathers when they framed the Constitution.
Hogwash, says Schaeffer, of the People for the American Way. "We are not governed by the Northwest Ordinances. We are governed by the United States Constitution," she says. "I think that Thomas Jefferson would be turning over in his grave if he thought he would be invoked with a resolution like this."
Schaeffer's group was founded 19 years ago by television producer Norman Lear to help safeguard individual rights. "To invoke the [nation's] founders like this is ironic," Schaeffer says. "They fought a war to provide for freedom of religion." She says the resolution and related arguments are part of the "religious right nonsense."
Non-sectarian academicians also say the fundamentalists' push runs counter to established law and recognized history. Paul McGreal, constitutional law professor at South Texas College of Law, says of the group, "If they are doing history, they are doing really poor history."
The U.S. Supreme Court has found that godly references such as those in court oaths, on coins and in the Pledge of Allegiance are so rooted in tradition that they are not considered to be offensive to any citizens. But that does not extend to resolutions finding that there is a governing creator, an afterlife and Judgment Day, McGreal says.
"The difference here is that this seems to be a specific endorsement of a theology," he says. The resolution encourages public schools and institutions to display and teach the godly principles as a matter of history and law. McGreal concludes that the measure is unconstitutional on its face.
Religious activists remain undaunted in their efforts to get government endorsements of what appear to be sectarian issues. They and their critics agree that a showdown looms.
"Probably what will happen is this will come to a head," Bourgeois says, "and the American people will be asked to honestly decide if they feel our elected officials are morally accountable to the people."
Schaeffer warns that "there is definitely a national movement, a movement that is political-ideological, to destroy the separation of church and state." Bourgeois, head of a 4,500-student school district that spends $23 million annually, sends her own message to civil libertarians: "85 percent of the people would say that separation of church and state is in our Constitution. It is not."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.