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Perry religious event draws scrutiny, carries potential risk


Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R)

AUSTIN, Texas -- As Gov. Rick Perry appears more and more likely to answer conservatives' clamoring for a breakout candidate in the GOP presidential field, the Texas governor himself will be seeking a breakthrough for the nation -- through prayer at a football stadium.

About 8,000 attendees have registered for “The Response,” an event envisioned by Perry and billed as a day of prayer and fasting. Organizers expect that number to jump as the day approaches. Reliant Stadium, where the Houston Texans play, holds more than 70,000.

As Perry described it in his initial promotion of the day-long event, "On August 6, thousands will gather to pray for a historic breakthrough for our country and a renewed sense of moral purpose."

But despite his embrace of “The Response,” the level of Perry's participation in the event has become less clear as some of its other backers, including groups and pastors opposed to "the homosexual agenda," have been more deeply scrutinized. Originally intended to underscore his connection to evangelical Christians, the prayer celebration could become fodder for opponents' political ads if any of the attendees make controversial statements that could be affixed to Perry's own presidential run.

A Perry spokesman said Tuesday that the governor will be at the seven-hour event throughout the day, but that a final program of events, including any remarks by the potential 2012 candidate, has not been finalized. Perry joked to reporters last week that he may "be ushering" at the gathering.

The low profile could be meant to duck a barrage of criticism from opponents, who label the event an inappropriate overlap of church and state with participants known for their hostility toward advocates of gay rights.

The event is hosted by the American Family Association, a 501(c)3 organization that opposes pornography and abortion and describes homosexuality as the product of "a sinful heart."

"We believe the core goal of the homosexual movement is to abolish the traditional, Judeo-Christian view of human sexuality, marriage and family," the group writes on its website. Opponents of the Reliant Stadium event have pointed out that the association is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Also listed as a "national endorser" on the event's website is Pastor John Hagee, the San Antonio religious leader from whom 2008 presidential candidate John McCain (R-AZ) distanced himself due to Hagee's past controversial statements about Jews and gays.

In an interview with rally participant Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council aired over the weekend, Perry continued to promote “The Response,” but downplayed the expected low attendance by other elected officials, saying that he "understands" if the governors of the nation's other 49 states do not accept his invitation to attend.

The only other governor, who had confirmed his attendance to organizers, had been Gov. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas, but it is now unclear whether he will appear at the rally.

A Brownback spokesman said the governor is on vacation this weekend and that it is "left to his discretion" whether to attend.  His office also underscored that, if Brownback does attend, he will do so on his own dime. Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) is expected to appear via video.