Two decades after televangelist Pat Robertson told Republicans that only Christians or Jews should hold public office, state and local party leaders are taking their strongest stand yet to embrace conservative Muslims.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Houston and state party Chairman James Dickey of Austin issued statements last week reaffirming support for religious freedom, including the appointment of Southlake City Councilman Shahid Shafi, an American Muslim born in India, as a local party vice-chair.
On paper, a party long identified with Christian evangelism has shifted ever so slightly and now promotes religious liberty under the U.S. Constitution for all who trust a God or higher power.
But as hard as Texas Republicans run to escape past Islam-bashing, now and then it catches up.
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Several elected Tarrant County Republican precinct chairs from Arlington, Euless, Grand Prairie and Keller want to vote on removing Shafi from party office and also on removing three other officials, including county Chairman Darl Easton of Euless.
Look, this is not a matter of the moderates against the Tea Party.
(Yes, in 2011 the NE Tarrant Tea Party board members opposed Shafi’s race for city council, back when a rival campaign simply put up signs listing Shafi’s donors and their family surnames. But later that Tea Party helped him get elected, and Easton’s wife, Janna, is an officer.)
This split is between the Tea Party and those precinct chairs or activists who are More Extreme Than the Tea Party.
Yes, we have those.
For example, Keller Republican Sara Legvold has a conspiracy-minded Facebook page, “Protect Texas.” She warns 2,300 followers against the “Islamization” of America and accuses Shafi as “a practicing, Mosque-attending Muslim” secretly promoting Shariah.
State Rep. Jeff Leach of Plano passed a bill preserving the authority of U.S. and Texas laws over civil agreements, including those based on Shariah.
But his reaction was sharp.
Shafi’s faith “shouldn’t play a role,” Leach said, calling the opposition to Shafi “disgusting.”
“I know that some people are being motivated to oppose him over his religion,” Leach said — “It’s disgusting. We believe in religious freedom. That’s what makes our country so unique.”
A precinct chairwoman from the Tarrant County side of Grand Prairie, Dorrie O’Brien, has crusaded for a decade against Islamic influence, extremist violence and a perceived Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy.
For O’Brien, it’s nothing new. She even picketed Six Flags for having a “Muslim Family Day.”
As far back as 2009, she has been an invited guest speaker across Texas warning Republican clubs against “stealth jihad.” She has spoken to Republican clubs, Tea Party groups, Texas Capitol rallies and conservative activists across Texas.
Then there’s Dallas author John Guandolo, a former FBI agent selling anti-Islam books, videos and training sessions. In a Facebook comment, Guandolo ‘s company calls one Tarrant County precinct chair a “jihadi-defending Muslim.”
Last year, at a national sheriffs conference, Guandolo punched a Minnesota sheriff he accused of sympathizing with Muslims.
And that’s the problem for the state Republican Party: Officials can say they don’t discriminate, but local clubs consistently welcome opponents of Islam, some promoting Christian evangelism and others simply bashing foreigners.
Just last month, Guandolo told a Canadian columnist that two Muslim women elected to Congress in Michigan and Minnesota “cannot serve.”
The Founders, he said, “were very clear that only Christians should hold public office.”
That position is officially not Republican.