AUSTIN (AP/KXAN) — The rabbi who defied Texas’ same-sex marriage ban and wed a lesbian couple last week led the morning prayer in the Republican-dominated Texas House on Wednesday, catching staunch supporters of the prohibition off-guard.
Rabbi Kerry Baker didn’t reference the nuptials, which are being challenged by the state attorney general, but urged lawmakers to pay special attention to people who are marginalized and to treat everyone equally.
“It’s not enough to do what is good for the majority, but to do what is good for all of us,” Baker said.
Baker then stood for a photo with Republican House Speaker Joe Straus, who later acknowledged he was unaware Baker was involved in the wedding, and Rep. Elliott Naishtat, the Austin Democrat who introduced Baker. Naishtat subsequently said he intentionally omitted details of Baker’s role in the wedding during his introduction.
“This is a place where we believe in free speech, and that begins with a prayer each day,” Straus said after being told Baker oversaw the ceremony.
Republican Rep. Cecil Bell, who cut a celebratory cake during a religious rally at the state Capitol on Tuesday to mark the voter-approved ban’s 10th anniversary, also said he was unaware Baker was involved in the wedding.
Bell, who has filed legislation that would prohibit county, state and local officials from recognizing, granting or enforcing same-sex marriage licenses, said he had “bigger things to concern” himself with than to “take exception to the decision as to who will do the prayer in the morning.”
He added: “I’m thankful that the body opens with a prayer.”
Baker married Suzanne Bryant and Sarah Goodfriend just moments after the women were granted a marriage license by an Austin judge because Goodfriend has cancer. The women have been together for nearly 30 years and have two teenage daughters. Baker says he’s known for a long time that he would perform the wedding ceremony.
“I got a call, and I was ready to go,” said Baker. “Kind of like being a rabbi and a firefighter all in one.”
Baker wasn’t originally scheduled to lead the prayer, stepping in after another pastor was snowed in. However, he didn’t waste the opportunity, talking to lawmakers about what both the Constitution and the Bible advise.
“I understand why people feel uncomfortable, I understand why they wish the issue would just go away, I understand why they want to put the genie back in the bottle,” he said. “Change comes, even though people think it won’t.”
Baker says he hopes he’s helped open the door for same-sex couples but knows many will try to close that door.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton immediately asked the state Supreme Court to invalidate the marriage and block county clerks from issuing marriage licenses. The court sided with Paxton on the latter request but didn’t address Bryant and Goodfriend’s marriage.
Naishtat said he hadn’t heard a word of opposition from other House members and was pleased that Baker spoke “eloquently about marginalized populations and the need for inclusion.”
Lawmakers can submit requests for a clergy member to lead the House prayer on a certain date to the chamber’s sergeant-at-arms. The speakers don’t require the approval of House leadership.
Baker obeyed instructions to avoid political or partisan matters. He referenced the Bible and the U.S. Constitution, and prayed for “God’s strength and direction to make sure that we are including all in our thoughts.”
Bryant and Goodfriend, both longtime political activists, asked a Travis County judge to issue them a marriage license two days after another judge in an unrelated estate case ruled that Texas’ ban was unconstitutional. The ban was overturned last year by a federal judge in San Antonio, but that ruling is on hold while the state appeals. The case is now with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In an interview outside the House chamber after the prayer, Baker said he has led prayers at the Capitol before. The outspoken rabbi said he is used to people disagreeing with him on issues including same-sex marriage.
He said he believes the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause trumps Texas’ constitutional amendment, which voters overwhelmingly approved in 2005. But legal arguments aside, Baker said he performed last week’s wedding because it was “the right thing to do in terms of what the Bible teaches.”
The U.S. Supreme Court this summer will hear arguments on same-sex marriages, which are now legal in 37 states.
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