‘Patriot Pastor’ Alliance Did Not Inoculate Texas Gov. against Vaccine Backlash

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) worked closely with the Religious Right over the last few years leading up to his re-election in November. He appeared at “Patriot Pastor” rallies organized by the Texas Restoration Project and held the ceremonial signing of a ban on same-sex marriage at a church, surrounded by Rod Parsley, Tony Perkins, and Texas Restoration Project leader Laurence White, who promised to register 300,000 voters. Today, however, the Religious Right is not happy with their man in Austin.

Following a recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control, a number of states have implemented or are considering vaccinating girls attending public school against HPV, a virus that causes 70 percent of cervical cancer cases. While vaccinations against measles, mumps, and tetanus are not controversial, the Religious Right sees HPV differently: It is sexually transmitted. The Family Research Council’s Bridget Maher warned that young women may see vaccination “as a licence to engage in premarital sex,” and former Focus on the Family advisor Reginald Finger said that marketing the vaccine “would undermine the abstinence-only message.”

So when Perry signed an order requiring incoming sixth-grade girls to get vaccinated, many on the Right reacted immediately. A spokesman for Concerned Women for America called it “outrageous assault on girls and their parents” that “forces little girls to be shot with a sex virus vaccine.” Texas Eagle Forum’s Cathie Adams declared, “He’s replacing parents’ rights with state’s rights.” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins wrote that Perry “usurped the rights of parents and the legislature” and warned that “political actions have consequences.”

And Rick Scarborough, an early organizer of the kind of “Patriot Pastor” network that aided Perry’s re-election – and of whom Perry has said that “One hundred years from now” people will say “the great revival of the early 21st Century” began “with people like Rick Scarborough” – is now calling Perry an “erstwhile friend,” warning that “At time when increasing numbers of pastors and conservative Christians are becoming politically active in Texas, this unfortunate move by an erstwhile friend is a serious setback.” Meanwhile, activists are pushing the anti-vaccine message out to the same groups that Perry’s religious-right campaigning worked to mobilize in 2005-6.

Perry so far has stood firm, saying that “Providing the HPV vaccine doesn’t promote sexual promiscuity any more than providing the Hepatitis B vaccine promotes drug use.” And in fact, while right-wing groups mobilize their grassroots to oppose the vaccine, closer examination reveals that they have a difficult time denying its potential to save lives. Going against the public-health theory that mass vaccinations can eradicate the disease, groups like FRC and Focus on the Family take the position that the vaccine should be available but not mandatory, formulating the issue in terms of “parents’ rights.” “[M]oms and dads should make the decision about their kids’ health without state coercion,” writes Perkins. And even if it is optional, as in Texas, it should be “opt-in” rather than “opt-out,” according to Perkins.

But the Religious Right’s strong reaction against “forc[ing] little girls to be shot with a sex virus vaccine” leaves little room in the debate for details about which form parents have to fill out to preserve so-called “parents’ rights.” Instead, the Right’s abstinence-only refrain makes it sound like Texas is requiring girls to carry condoms, as one right-wing group put it. The emphasis on abstinence to the point of excluding other information is already dangerous policy when it comes to sex ed, but it’s doubly so when it comes at the direct cost of passing up a life-saving cure – especially when many on the Right acknowledge that abstinence might not be enough. Vaccination would protect not only the 94 percent of women who have sex before marriage, but also those who “practice[] abstinence and fidelity” yet “could be exposed to HPV through sexual assault or marriage to an infected partner,” as FRC’s Sprigg admitted.