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Texas city council members censure colleague over anti-Islam Facebook post

The post featured a student in a hijab and these words: 'Share if you think Trump should ban Islam in American schools.'

PLANO, Texas (RNS) — The city council of heavily Republican Plano has voted to censure one of its members for an anti-Islam Facebook post — a post for which he has apologized but over which he refuses to resign.

The 7-1 vote Sunday (Feb. 18) was a decisive repudiation of the kind of exclusionary rhetoric that President Trump himself has employed. Only embattled council member Tom Harrison dissented in the vote that came during a special council meeting called to address his Tuesday re-post from a Facebook group called Joined Hands Across America For Trump.

The controversial post shared by councilman Tom Harrison on Facebook. Screenshot

It featured a student in a hijab and these words: “Share if you think Trump should ban Islam in American schools.”

As word of the councilman’s action quickly spread in this affluent city of 286,000 about 20 miles north of Dallas, the city’s first black mayor called for his immediate resignation.

Harrison took the post down on Wednesday, but residents had already begun taking sides over whether he deserved to continue in office.

“My message to everyone within the Islamic community is: This is their home. They’re welcome just like everyone else is,” Mayor Harry LaRosiliere, a Republican elected in 2013 who has been critical of Trump, said at a news conference.

All of that happened within the last week, and on Sunday roughly 500 people showed up at city hall for a special council meeting called to discuss the future of Harrison, 73.

After an hour behind closed doors, the council took their censure vote in public session.

“Six years ago or 10 years ago, I would have given him the benefit of the doubt,” said Plano resident Gans Subramanian, a Hindu immigrant from India who attended the meeting. “But in the current political context, we are all very, very careful about things. … If you have a councilman make an incorrect statement like that, it breaks the trust in the community.”

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The mayor said the censure serves as a public admonishment of Harrison. The council does not have the power to remove him. That would require a recall petition and referendum decided by voters, city officials said.

“I am not xenophobic. I am not a bigot. I am not a racist,” Harrison said in public session after listening to a half-dozen of his colleagues either demand that he resign or encourage him to come to that decision on his own. 

His declaration that he would not resign drew a mix of loud cheers and boos as residents — many of them Muslims, including a few women sporting star-spangled headscarves — packed the standing-room-only chambers.

A large crowd fills the Plano, Texas, Municipal Center for the city council’s special meeting on Feb. 18, 2018. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

Before the doors to city hall were opened, competing groups of demonstrators faced off outside, drowning each other out with competing chants of “No to Tom!” and “Tom Stay!”

Mariam Khan, a Muslim mother of four, held a sign that said, “No Hate! Makes Plano Great!” Her 14-year-old daughter Iman Siddiqui’s sign declared, “Stop Pretending Your Racism Is Patriotism.”

“The growing hate in our community is a concern. Plano is a welcoming place, but after the recent election … we always face racism because of the headscarf,” Khan said, referring to the election of Trump, who promised to crack down on refugees from Muslim-majority nations deemed terrorism threats.

“So this is a time for everybody who wants to live in peace and make America great again … to stop the racism,” added Khan, who immigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan in 2000.

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Another resident, Erica Johnson, waved a “Baptists Against Bigots” sign and said her children attend public schools with Muslim students.

“Look, if you want to be a racist old grandpa, you can be a racist old grandpa,” Johnson said. “But you cannot serve in public office. It’s wrong. I mean, everyone has the right to free speech, but you don’t have the freedom of the consequences of your free speech, right?”

But resident Julie Shi, an immigrant from China, organized a vocal group of Harrison supporters.

“He’s a true gentleman, a nice human being,” Shi said, brushing off the anti-Islam Facebook post as an innocent mistake by someone who is not a politician or a professional communicator.

Supporters, including Julie Shi, right, an immigrant from China, rally in favor of embattled Plano, Texas, councilman Tom Harrison on Feb. 18, 2018. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

Another Harrison backer, Colleen Epstein, accused LaRosiliere of waging a witch hunt against Harrison to deflect attention from criticism of the mayor for not attending a meeting to discuss the nation’s infrastructure with Trump.

LaRosiliere is a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Haiti. He denounced Trump last month when the president reportedly used a vulgarity to refer to Haiti, El Salvador and African nations. But the mayor denied any political motivation in calling for Harrison’s resignation.

The day after his Facebook post, Harrison sought forgiveness for the post in a statement he made on Facebook.

“I want to sincerely apologize to the Plano Muslim Community for the unintentional hurt I caused by reposting something on my Facebook page that wrongfully implied I am anti-Muslim,” wrote Harrison, who suggested later in the post that his intent had been to “emphasize that Christianity is not the only religion being targeted for exclusion in our public school (sic).”

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Harrison, whose online council profile notes his volunteer work with United Methodist groups, added: “As a Christian, it is my belief that all should be free to worship as they choose, but we live in a time where any practice of religious expression in public schools is rarely tolerated. My hope is that due to the rightful negative response to my post, that it will spark a renewed discussion about all religions and their place in our public schools.”

Plano is Texas’ ninth-largest city and the most populous in Collin County, a fast-growing area that is solidly red politically but has trended bluer more recently. Fifty-six percent of the county’s voters cast ballots for President Trump in 2016. That’s a significant decline from the 73 percent who backed George W. Bush, then Texas’ governor, in 2000.

In nearby McKinney, another fast-growing community in Collin County, two public middle school teachers resigned last month after Twitter posts were discovered in which they referred to Islam as a “satanic death cult,” an “evil ideology” and a “political ideology … (that) cannot assimilate,” according to the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

At Sunday’s meeting, other Plano council members echoed the mayor’s disagreement with the anti-Islam Facebook post shared by Harrison.

“My Christian faith, my savior, tells me to love all people,” said Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Ron Kelley, who directs a nonprofit personal finance ministry affiliated with Plano’s Prestonwood Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist megachurch led by Pastor Jack Graham, one of Trump’s evangelical advisers.

“I took an oath to serve ALL of our citizens and I take that responsibility very serious,” Kelley wrote earlier on his Facebook page. “Hate speech or discrimination of any type does not belong in Plano as it doesn’t fit our core values.”

Kelley alleged that Harrison’s recent post was part of a pattern: A past message allegedly shared by the councilman said, “All slave owners are Muslim.” Harrison said he has retained an attorney and declined to respond to specific claims.

“It’s an un-American thing to shame people for their religion,” Kelley said. “I believe that with all my heart.”

Councilwoman Kayci Prince, whose husband, Jessie, is pastor of Grace Outreach Center in Plano, said at Sunday’s meeting that she was “deeply saddened that people in our community are hurting” as a result of Harrison’s Facebook post.

“As a person of faith, my faith teaches me to show love and respect to everyone. … As a leader within our city, I consider it an honor to represent all of our citizens,” she wrote earlier on her own Facebook page. “We as city leaders have an obligation to welcome individuals from all backgrounds, and it’s unacceptable when city leaders choose not to behave in this manner.”