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Conservative Pastor Comes Up Short in Fight for Reckoning Over Same-Sex Partner Benefits

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First Baptist Pflugerville Pastor Steve Washburn
First Baptist Pflugerville Pastor Steve Washburn

A conservative faction trying to gain control of the Pflugerville ISD board lost in last weekend’s election, despite a local pastor’s best efforts to get out the vote in his congregation. The challenge was a response to the district’s decision to extend health insurance benefits to employees’ domestic partners.

Though only about five people are taking advantage of the extended benefits, it sparked a controversy that’s reached to the State Capitol and Attorney General Greg Abbott.

After district administrators decided to make the change last fall—making it the first district in the state to do so—Pflugerville ISD trustees voted 5-1 to support the decision in December. Mario Acosta and Carol Fletcher, who both voted yes, were up for reelection last Saturday.

Tony Hanson, senior internal auditor for the Texas General Land Office and minister of Saint Mary Missionary Baptist Church, challenged Acosta; Lance Sandlin, an e-business adviser at Dell and a First Baptist Church member, challenged Fletcher.

First Baptist Pflugerville Pastor Steve Washburn vehemently objected to the district’s decision early on, and emailed hundreds of his congregants demanding that they vote for “the candidates in Place #3 and Place #5 who will oppose this decision” to extend benefits to “immoral sexual partners (heterosexual and homosexual).” He went on:

In any election, there is only one question we need to answer: “For which candidates does GOD want me to vote?” As followers of Jesus, we vote for HIS priorities, not our priorities. That means we are always, first and foremost – “Christian Moral Values Voters.” We vote for the candidates who best represent and defend the Lord’s moral values as He reveals them in Scripture. … For followers of Jesus, not voting is NOT an option.

Dan Quinn, communications director of the Texas Freedom Network, said nonprofits, including churches, can’t endorse political candidates and maintain their nonprofit status under the federal tax code. Quinn said there’d be some question if First Baptist Pflugerville violated that law, but Washburn came close to the line.

“I mean, no one’s fooled here,” Quinn said about Washburn’s email. “We’re seeing faith as a political weapon to divide people. … No one is required to leave their religion outside the polling booth, but to suggest that God demands that you vote the way I want you to vote or you’re immoral is just wrong.”

Washburn testified at a House Education Committee hearing earlier this legislative session, in favor of a bill by Rep. Drew Springer (R-Muenster), which would withhold some state funding from any district, like Pflugerville ISD, offering domestic partner benefits.

“The effect that this has had on our community is difficult to measure,” Washburn said at the hearing in April. “It’s been a very negative effect on the Pflugerville community. … It has pitted the administration and the school board against the conservative Protestant Christians, and there are quite a few of us.”

Washburn said that the few employees taking advantage of the extended benefits “have been the source of all of this terrible division in our school district” and lamented that he’d been called a “hate-monger” at a school board meeting. Though that bill died last week, Springer told Observer that there are other ways to keep it moving, like tacking it onto another bill as an amendment.

Carol Fletcher, who won her election Saturday, said no one called Washburn a hate-monger and said she’s offended that he’s tried to play the victim. The only things hurting the community, she said, are Washburn’s agitating for the bill and meddling in the election.

“I feel like the majority of people in our community very much support our strong stance against bullying and discrimination in our schools,” Fletcher said.