He was there to tell council members about a binder of information he’d prepared for them regarding people selected in recent months to give invocations before their meetings. All of the people mentioned in the binder, Sebesta claims, either have anti-LGBTQ beliefs or come from institutions that have such beliefs.
When he finally got his chance to speak, Sebesta had some bold words for the City Council. “You don’t have to visit Stedfast [Baptist Church] or Westboro Baptist Church to find vicious homophobia,” Sebesta said. “You can find it slithering, stealth promoted, right here in the Dallas City Council. Further, there are those who claim to be defenders of the LGBT, but in reality, in the defense against homophobia, are the Uvalde police.” (He was referring to accusation the law officers in Uvalde were slow to act to stop a gunman who killed 19 students and two teachers an an elementary school.)
That’s about when Sebesta’s time ran out. Had he been allowed more time, he would have said, “Dallas City Council should not empower the deadly enemies of the LGBT by having them give invocations."
Before Sebesta could leave, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson thanked him for taking the time to speak and compile all of the information. Johnson said he would look into it. “I’m going to read this carefully and talk about what we can do to think through this issue,” Johnson said. “But I appreciate the patience and the respectfulness that you addressed this council with, and the effort you put into this. It means a lot.”
Sebesta later posted his speech and the contents of the binder he gave to City Council members on his blog.
Sebesta told the council members that day that speakers and their religious groups are given credibility and legitimacy when selected to give an invocation before an entity like the Dallas City Council. “The summer and early September invocations of the Dallas City Council have been an extended summer of blistering and yet stealth homophobia,” Sebesta said.
Five of eight invocation speakers chosen in that time came from churches, institutions and organizations that Sebesta calls “the mortal enemies of gay people.” Sebesta explained the background of each of the five speakers, and said they were introduced by Johnson and City Council members Adam Bazaldua, Jaynie Schultz and Cara Mendelsohn.
Johnson introduced Russell Freeman of Cottonwood Creek Baptist Church and Adam C. Wright, president of Dallas Baptist University. Freeman has lectured about the biblical objections to homosexuality, and the Cottonwood Creek Baptist Church had a class about how to love your gay child without compromising your faith.
Mendelsohn and Schultz both introduced speakers associated with the Denison Forum, a site run by Jim Denison, a local Christian author. The site is part of what is called Denison Ministries. Denison had an interesting take in one of his articles about how millennials will shape society.
“For those of us who believe God’s word on issues such as same-sex marriage, the news is not encouraging,” Denison wrote in 2014. “Nearly 7-in-10 Millennials support allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry.”
Denison is still writing on his site today, but he also posts articles from others, including Nick Pitts, president of Dallas Christian Leadership Prayer Breakfast. Pitts was selected to give an invocation speech, as was Rachia Green, chief operating officer of Denison Ministries. The two were introduced by Schultz and Mendelsohn, respectively
In articles for the Denison Forum, Pitts seems to advocate for gay conversion therapy. He also indicates that gay marriage is wrong and that churches shouldn’t open up to LGBTQ people.
Bazaldua introduced Jesse Perez and Mando Perico for invocations, two individuals with the Victory Outreach church. Here is the church’s official stance on homosexuality, according to its website: “Victory Outreach does not endorse homosexuality or lesbianism; we consider both to be immoral and contrary to biblical teaching."
Don’t worry, gay people, they love you even if you are immoral. “While there are some individuals who are indeed homophobic, we encourage our church to reach out in love to the homosexual with the Gospel message of hope and forgiveness,” the church writes on its website. “We believe it is possible to love a person without approving of his/her lifestyle. We fully recognize that the gay person is a human being who is created in God’s image, and we condemn activities of those who are violent towards gays.”
Sebesta told the Observer he started looking into all of this in June. “It’s amazing,” he said. “In June they always have these Pride flags outside of City Hall. At the same time, they’re having these different people do the invocations. So, I’ve just been tracking it.” He said similar people have been chosen for invocation speeches since.
Sebesta blames the speaker picks on the council members who introduced them, but this may not be the best indication of who chose each speaker.
“In June they always have these Pride flags outside of City Hall. At the same time, they’re having these different people do the invocations." – Edward Sebesta, author
Reached for comment Thursday afternoon, Bazaldua said over the phone that he didn’t pick the speakers from Victory Outreach or know the church’s views on homosexuality. Reached by text, Mendelsohn said the same thing about the speaker from Denison Ministry. “I have never met them and am unfamiliar with this ministry,” Mendelsohn said.
Mendelsohn and Bazaldua both said the speakers were picked by the mayor’s office.
Bazaldua said council members usually introduced the invocation speakers because they’re from their district, but that doesn’t always mean they picked them. For a while, Bazaldua said he’s had an issue with the invocation speeches because they feel like a violation of the separation of church and state. So while council members can recommend speakers, he doesn’t. If the mayor’s office picks someone from his district, he’ll introduce them. Since Sebesta’s comments at City Hall in September, Bazaldua said he’s declined to do so.
“I did it kind of innocently just through protocol of ‘They’re in my district and the mayor asked for me to do it,’” Bazaldua said. “I think a good point was raised. Who’s vetting these people?”
Bazaldua said he now plans to leave the council chambers during future invocation speeches. “I believe it doesn’t speak to the inclusivity that the city of Dallas touts,” he said.
Tristan Hallman, the mayor’s chief of staff, said Johnson doesn’t pick the invocation speakers. “We do that at the staff level,” he said. Johnson may recommend one, similar to how others on council might, but he isn’t handpicking each one. Additionally, Hallman said the selection of a speaker isn’t an endorsement of everything they believe.
“We don’t ask them to fill out a survey or something like that about their political views,” Hallman said. “There’s obviously a difference between a point of view espoused at the horseshoe versus elsewhere in the city. We’re not necessarily aware of everything everyone’s said before they come in.”
Hallman added that the mayor took Sebesta’s words and research to heart, and the city is looking into how it can do things differently. One thing being considered, he said, is to use fire and police chaplains for the invocation speeches. “We’re talking about it,” he said.
Sebesta said he hasn't gotten a response yet from anyone on City Council about the invocation speakers. He's interested to see what the council does. On the speakers, Sebesta said: "I'm not asking for their arrest. I just don't want them promoted. You know, they want to believe the earth is flat. As long as they're not taking over the geography department, I don't care."