In Cottonwood, a conservative church drives local anti-LGBTQ+ politics

Emails between River Bible Church’s lead pastor and council members show the religious group's influence and partisanship.

In Cottonwood, a conservative church drives local anti-LGBTQ+ politics
Illustration by Joseph Darius Jaafari

They showed up to city council meetings in droves. Some wore tee shirts in support of former President Donald Trump, some held up signs calling for the mayor’s resignation. Others held Bibles, or spoke softly about “Godless” people.

The one unifier was their relationship with River Bible Church, a local self-described “conservative church” in Arizona’s Verde Valley.

River Bible Church is openly hostile against LGBTQ+ people and prominently publishes their stances against homosexuality, transgender people, and same-sex marriage on their website.

Leading its flock at the public meetings was Dustin Daniels, the church’s senior pastor and one of the main organizers against LGBTQ+ rights in the small city of Cottonwood. Records show that Daniels sent out emails to his congregation telling congregants about a local drag show headed to Cottonwood and how they could show up at the council meetings to support a resistance against the performance.

Church members arrived en masse, not once, but to multiple city council meetings. At one point, a working group meeting became a standing-room-only event inside a banquet hall at the local recreation center.

But emails gathered by LOOKOUT show that Daniels’s influence doesn’t just include his own congregants; he’s also used his position to have conversations with Cottonwood city council members who were politically aligned with his church, specifically on anti-LGBTQ+ issues, and pushed leaders to vote for specific partisan bills.

Through a public records request, LOOKOUT reviewed dozens of emails sent by Daniels to council members that showed the religious leader was organizing his church to take part in political activities specifically in support of anti-LGBTQ+ elected officials, such as Lisa DuVernay, a Trump-style conservative.

“We shudder at the thought of outsiders disturbing our great city with morals and values that we ourselves do not hold, performing a sexually deviant ‘show’ that we do not want, and then abandoning our community, placing a blight on our friends, families, and children."

- Dustin Daniels, senior pastor for River Bible Church in a petition against a touring drag show coming to Cottonwood.

Both DuVernay and Daniels did not respond when LOOKOUT reached out for comment via email.

Emails show that through his church email, Daniels solicited hundreds of signatures to rally against a drag show coming to town, called the Arizona Pride Tour, and then presented that petition to Cottonwood’s city council.

“Council Member DuVernay, please know that nothing good will come from this event,” he wrote. “I’m begging, please, do not allow The Arizona Pride Tour into our community.”

In the email, he continued to say that he created the petition and attached the full list of signees to urge a vote against the drag show from performing in a public venue. “We shudder at the thought of outsiders disturbing our great city with morals and values that we ourselves do not hold, performing a sexually deviant ‘show’ that we do not want, and then abandoning our community, placing a blight on our friends, families, and children,” he wrote.

Daniels gathered more than 1,200 signatures for the petition he presented to council. But only half of the people who signed and registered their zip code were from Cottonwood. “I have updated my congregation and will also update the 1,200+ people who have signed the petition,” he said. “We are praying for you.”

In response, DuVernay said that the city could not actively discriminate by denying the show’s performance, but she ended her email saying that she would be doing what she could to keep it from happening: “It is not a city sanctioned event and from what I’m being told the City cannot discriminate on who they rent to. I am praying we can find some way to prevent this in any way possible.”

Arizona state law prevents discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in accessing public spaces. When asked by email for DuVernay to clarify if she was covertly trying to stop the event based on the performer’s sexual identity or orientation, she did not respond.

DuVernay and the council were later successful in revoking the drag show’s liquor license. And in an email, Daniels thanked DuVernay again for the vote: “Hello Council Member DuVernay,” he wrote on March 22 this past year. “I hope you are enjoying your stay with your mum! I also wanted to thank you for your vote against the alcohol permit pertaining to the drag show.”

There is currently a civil rights complaint filed against the city of Cottonwood by the show’s creator, Miss Nature LLC, in the state attorney general’s office. The complaint alleged that revoking the liquor license was based on LGBTQ+ discrimination.

Under federal law, churches are not allowed to partake in partisan politics without risk of losing their tax-exempt status. Examples where churches can organize politically is, for example, getting congregants out to vote, or holding a political debate, so long as it is nonpartisan and doesn’t aim to elevate one candidate over another.

However, churches are allowed to take part in political activism, nonprofit legal experts said. Churches, they said, can show favor toward certain laws or policies and can act as de facto lobbyists for certain issues. They only step over the line in violating federal tax law when, for example, a pastor tells their parishioners they should vote for a specific person.

It’s unclear if Daniels and River Bible Church are acting squarely within federal law. Though churches can rally behind a specific bill or ordinance being passed, when churches push one bill “that is indicative of supporting one party over another, we worry about that,” said Ellis Carter, an attorney at Caritas Law Group who specializes in nonprofit law and has chaired for multiple nonprofits. Carter said that even though laws are clear on what churches can do, many simply ignore the rules or flout them.

Without speaking specifically about River Bible Church’s activities, Carter mentioned that certain activities, such as organizing a member of a congregation to run for council or pushing signatures for a mayor's recall, would be a violation of federal tax law.

But according to Secular AZ, a state watchdog group that raises awareness on the separations between church and state, they said that the emails LOOKOUT obtained don’t show any illegal activity.

In a statement to LOOKOUT through the organization's legal committee, they said what Daniels is doing at city council meetings and in the community is “perfectly legal.” The organization clarified that a church can take a stance that they don’t support drag if it's in line with their church values and even support certain legislation. “They can lobby all they want and spend every dime of church resources if they want for an issue they agree or disagree with.”

What they can’t do is, “give money to a campaign, host a political rally for a candidate at the church, or tell people how to vote on a candidate,” the statement said.

Despite the legal certainty, the church’s seeming influence at city council has made some Cottonwood residents uneasy.

“The issue is that they’re trying to insert their bible into our government,” said Molly Heckman, a Cottonwood resident who has attended multiple city council and school board meetings. “Their agenda is still pervasive in the community. And if they’re following everything with the tax laws, they’re still one of those churches that need to be watched because they do have the movement and the congregation to create an evangelical system."

Heckman said that the church’s presence inside political arenas has made people in the community go into hiding. She and others have taken the stance that it’s a losing battle to try and debate them publicly.

“It’s like trying to explain color TV to someone who’s never seen it,” she said. “We’re trying to build a bridge to people who are just trying to burn everything down because they see us as an abomination to their God.”

Recently, Heckman said, the church helped in gathering more than 800 signatures to recall the city mayor, Tim Elinski. The galvanizing force behind the recall, according to the Verde Independent, was the city allowing the drag show to continue as planned. The petition fell short by 42 signatures from registered Cottonwood voters and the mayor said he would not run in next year’s election, according to the Verde Valley Independent.

But despite River Bible Church’s ability to organize people, there are others who have attempted to find common ground and fight against hate and religious bigotry.

During one meeting, local activist Julie Fernatt organized 50 community members to say that they would not participate in the culture wars instigated by the church and certain members of the council, but that they would be keeping tabs on council member’s votes and public statements.

“The things people say at the city council meetings are horrific,” Fernatt told LOOKOUT. “They think we should be part of a Christian theocracy.”

Since that happened, Fernatt said, church leaders haven’t showed up in their former numbers.

“We essentially shut them down,” she said.

This year, Fernatt along with help from other local activists started the Rural Organizing Initiative, a progressive non profit that aims to work on supporting local candidates in bipartisan elections, such as at the school board.

Since starting, Fernatt said the response has been overwhelming in support of trying to find bipartisan solutions to issues in the community.

“I’m encouraged by the number of people showing up and getting involved about upcoming elections and why they matter,” Fernatt said. “A lot of us across the country got a little complacent… and people are kind of waking up now and seeing that they need to participate to protect democracy in their backyards.”

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