Sins of a Preacher Man

Until his overthrow, Bill Price led the Texas anti-abortion movement for 17 years. Was it politics, ego, or something worse that did him in?

Bill Price sees himself as a man of strong conviction, a trait he inherited from his father, he says. The Rev. Oliver Price was one of the last of the circuit-riding preachers, bringing the Bible to the backwoods of Oklahoma and Arkansas. Staunchly fundamentalist, Oliver preached at conservative, independent "Bible churches." So fervent was his belief in the sanctity of marriage that he refused to marry any woman who wasn't "sexually pure."

He didn't perform many weddings.

"My father drew the line in the sand all his life," Bill Price says. "I like to think I got that from him."

During an abortion debate in the mid-'80s, Price outed Charlotte Taft, who ran the Routh Street Women's Clinic.
Mark Graham
During an abortion debate in the mid-'80s, Price outed Charlotte Taft, who ran the Routh Street Women's Clinic.
Price had difficulty lobbying the Texas Legislature for his movement until 1999 when lawmakers passed the parental notification bill. When Gov. George W. Bush signed the bill into law, he asked Price to attend the ceremony.
Peter Calvin
Price had difficulty lobbying the Texas Legislature for his movement until 1999 when lawmakers passed the parental notification bill. When Gov. George W. Bush signed the bill into law, he asked Price to attend the ceremony.

In 1963, Oliver, his wife, and their four children moved to Carrollton, where he had inherited a small radio and television ministry. Every Sunday morning for the next 30 years, Oliver would host "The Bible Says," a 15-minute segment on KRLD-Channel 4. A daily radio show by the same name ran in several markets.

Bill Price's social life centered on the small church his father pastored in Carrollton. In the insulated setting of a fundamentalist church, Price displayed an "innate leadership ability," his father recalls. "He seemed to gather others around him who wanted to follow."

Price knew as early as high school that he wanted to be a minister. "I had grown up in a preacher's home, and what I saw there just salted my oats," he says. "I enjoyed being able to get in front of a group and communicating things out of the Bible."

Price entered Dallas Bible College in 1966, taking the quickest route to a Bible church ministry, which he found at the age of 21, when he became the youth pastor at a large church in Colorado Springs. Price says he was thrust into controversy when he extended his ministry to a "hippie enclave in the mountains" and wore purple shirts as part of his Sunday best. The pastor had a different notion of inclusiveness, and when Price told him he could find nothing in the Scriptures against purple shirts, he knew his tenure was limited.

"I was wet behind the ears," Price says. "But one of the things that I learned about Christians is that they can fight just as mean and nasty as anyone else. Things can get ugly fast."

After only 13 months, he began to search for another ministry. Luckily, his aunt told him about a church in Odessa that was looking for a new pastor. It wasn't much of a church, just five families who met in someone's home. But that was enough incentive for Price to move back to Texas with his pregnant wife, Janet, in 1971. "People loved listening to Bill preach," says Dr. Jim Frejia, one of his former parishioners. "He could spend three hours on a single verse of Scripture." Nevertheless, the church grew in size, and Sunday services moved from a house to a Chevy dealership, then to its own building.

Most of his flock, says Price, wanted to come to church, hear a Bible sermon, and go home. Getting involved in social causes was theologically taboo, smacking of the kind of liberal Protestantism that evangelicals had broken away from 40 years before. Why bother trying to make the world a better place when the End of Days was just around the corner? "There was a cultural war going on," Price says. "And most evangelicals had chosen to sit it out."

But Price was transfixed by the writings of conservative theologian Dr. Frances Schaeffer, who urged Christians to get out of the pews and into the political arena. Schaeffer implored conservative Christians to join the fight against abortion and euthanasia. It wasn't until 1977 that Price started pounding the pulpit about abortion, espousing a biblical view that life begins at conception. Not content with just sermonizing about "saving the unborn," he formed the right-to-life organization out of his church office.

In 1979, Price learned that Planned Parenthood, which both supported and provided abortions, was receiving funds from United Way in Odessa. Naively he asked United Way officials to drop Planned Parenthood from their next fund-raising campaign. When they refused, he called a news conference to announce that Odessans for Life would be running a series of ads asking people to give to charities other than United Way. "I had no idea what I was doing," he says. "I read from a press release that was eight pages long."

The media covered the United Way campaign as if it were a sporting event. If the charity met its goal, pro-choice advocates won; if they didn't, chalk up a victory for abortion opponents. Although an Odessa businessman put United Way over the top by writing a $20,000 check in the waning days of the campaign, Price would never be the same.

"I loved the strategy, the media, the whole fracas," Price recalls. "Anyone could pastor a church. I felt a fire burning inside me. I had to get involved in the public debate."

On December 5, 1985, Price was asked to debate Charlotte Taft in front of a television audience on the Ed Busch Talk Show in Dallas. Taft was a formidable foe, the director of the Routh Street Women's Clinic and an outspoken advocate of a woman's right to choose. In 1983, Price had become director of the Dallas Right to Life Committee (which would become Texans United for Life in 1989), raising the profile of the organization and himself by taking to the streets and protesting abortion providers such as Taft nearly every weekend.

Often he would debate Taft, who gave better than she got, taking the legal high ground while Price took the moral one. "The debates were really quite stupid," recalls Taft, who now lives in New Mexico. "He would say all this bumper-sticker pro-life stuff, and I would say this bumper-sticker pro-choice stuff. All we did was validate what people already believed."

This particular debate started like the others: Price accused Taft of being a godless profiteer murdering innocent children. Taft chastised Price for imposing his religious beliefs on a woman's right to choose.

After 20 minutes of sparring, Price held a photograph in his hand. He claimed that Taft had suggested that men had no right to debate abortion because "they didn't go through childbirth."

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