Cathedral of Hope, a Dallas church, drew protests Sunday for inviting drag queens onto its stage for a blessing during their 10 a.m. service.
Around 40 people protested in front of the church's property with signs and megaphones condemning LGBTQ people.
The church held its blessing ceremony to mark Dallas Pride and respond to Texas Senate Bill 12, commonly called the "drag bill."
The bill was scheduled to take effect Sept. 1, but has been placed under a second temporary hold as of Sept. 13. Its current language could have implications not only for drag queens, who could face jail time for performing in public, but also for concerts, bachelorette parties, and pride parades in the state.
Senior Pastor Rev. Neil Thomas said the bill was a part of growing "persecution" of drag queens and transgender people in the U.S.
"It's a pretty normal, natural thing for us to be vigilant specifically around issues that face the LGBTQ+ community," he said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News ahead of the event, adding that his church is the world's largest liberal church with a primary outreach to LGBTQ people.
On Sunday, the church's service began with choral music and a performer in a bedazzled blue dress reading from Matthew 9:35-38. Thomas preached a message from the passage about compassion in action, and after the sermon, a number of local drag performers were invited onto the stage while church leaders read a blessing over them.
"All people are made in the living image of god, no matter who they are, how they dress and express themselves, or who they love," church leaders read. "Drag queens are often targets of hate and violence. But we know that they are often powerful and resilient people who show us what it means to be truly authentic and expressive."
The church's auditorium, which seats around 850 people, was nearly full.
On the sidewalk outside the church, protestors focused much of their criticism on the church's decision to invite members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a national drag and charity group that has been the subject of recent controversy. Founded in 1979, the group is known for its nun-inspired costumes, religious satire and many years of fundraising for AIDS victims.
After the group was invited to a Los Angeles Dodgers pride event earlier this year, a number of Catholic organizations urged the Dodgers to disinvite them, calling them an "anti-Catholic hate group." The advocacy organization CatholicVote said in May that it had allotted a $1 million advertising budget to encourage Catholics to boycott the Dodgers, according to NBC News. Due to public backlash, the Sisters were disinvited from the Dodgers' event, though they were later reinvited and given an apology.
Outside Cathedral of Hope, protestors from far-right and anti-LGBTQ groups called the Sisters blasphemous and anti-Catholic.
"We're protesting against this abomination that's occurring here," said Jim Miller, a supporter of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.
"Catholic nuns are something that's very sacred, very beautiful," said Cesar Franco, a part of the nonprofit group America Needs Fatima. "For them to mock the purity of nuns, to mock this beautiful institution of the Catholic faith, it's abominable."
Thomas responded to concerns that his church was engaging in anti-Catholic bigotry.
"A large percentage of our congregation are people who felt excluded by Catholicism," he said, adding "we are not anti-Catholic." Thomas highlighted that specific elements of the church's liturgy, including how leaders talk about the sacraments and the vestments they wear, are designed specifically to "bridge the gap for some who have struggled in previous experiences at church."
Sista Sasha, a member of the DFW chapter of the Sisters, said that her group's goal was not to mock Christianity.
"We like to say that we go where the traditional nuns can't go," she said. "We can bring people joy and acceptance and hope, where sometimes they don't feel comfortable going to a church, or they've been pushed away by congregations."
She said the Sisters had done that for her personally when she first met them under a stairwell at a bar.
After a congregant saw her at a pride event, Sista Sasha had been fired from her position as a youth pastor and given 24 hours to vacate her office. Shortly after finding out, she remembered breaking down into tears underneath a bar stairwell. Members of the Sisters "came over and just hugged on me and gave me information -- they were offering me help trying to find a new job at like, 11:30 at night during pride," she said.
Sista Sasha also talked about how the kind of "religious satire" the performers are known for can be a valuable way to cope with rejection at the hands of the church.
She recounted how as she was getting out of her car that morning, she was confronted by protestors who began insulting her. In reference to her blue makeup, one protestor told her "the only thing blue about you is going to be the burning blue flames of hell," she said. "I was like, I'm using that one as a tagline." She often uses hateful comments she receives as material for her performances.
"To take something that is said out of hatred, and make it something joyful or humorous and exciting -- it allows you to take that hurt and pain that you once felt, and now you get to claim that as something that brings you joy."
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