DALLAS – Even for Texas, the scene was remarkable: The governor, flanked by an out-of-state televangelist and religious right leaders, signing legislation in a church school gymnasium amid shouts of "amen" from backers who just as well could have been attending a revival.
It wasn't just the blatant blend of church and state (search) that made the gathering in Fort Worth unusual. Advance publicity also attracted about 300 angry protesters — unheard of for the routine business of ceremonial bill signings.
Now some wonder whether Gov. Rick Perry (search) overplayed his hand last week trying to stick to the playbook used by old friend George W. Bush and political whiz Karl Rove, mobilizing evangelicals (search) for last year's presidential race.
"Governor Perry and his people are just not as good as Bush and Rove," Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson said. "Governor Perry knows the steps, but he's got no rhythm."
Perry's faith-based appeal came as he awaited possible Republican Party primary challenges from U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (search) and Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn (search) in 2006. But Jillson said the ex-Democrat risks alienating moderate Republicans turned off by an in-your-face approach to political issues with religious themes.
It's a gamble the governor seems willing to take. Last month, he spoke to about 500 pastors in Austin at a meeting of the Texas Restoration Project, which plans to register 300,000 new "values voters" in Texas and elect candidates who reflect their conservative views.
In the private meeting, Perry championed promotion of spiritual values on the public square.
"One of the great myths of our time is that you can't legislate morality," the governor told the ministers, according to a transcript provided to The Associated Press by his campaign.
"If you can't legislate morality, then you can neither lock criminals up nor let them go free. If you can't legislate morality, you can neither recognize gay marriage nor prohibit it. If you can't legislate morality, you can neither allow for prayer in school nor prevent it," he said. "It is a ridiculous notion to say you can't legislate morality. I say you can't NOT legislate morality."
Perry, a United Methodist, did not refer to the death penalty, which his denomination says devalues life and should be eliminated from criminal codes. The governor, a capital punishment proponent, presides over the nation's most active death penalty state.
Perry's pastor, the Rev. James Mayfield of Tarrytown United Methodist Church in Austin, did not respond to e-mail or phone messages from the AP seeking comment.
Perry grew up attending both the Baptist and Methodist churches in the tiny Paint Creek community in West Texas, spokeswoman Kathy Walt said. His religious beliefs are guided by several factors, including his understanding of scripture and conversations with "faith leaders."
"His walk of faith is a lifelong journey of a sinner who has accepted the grace of God," she said.
Ohio televangelist Rod Parsley and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council in Washington were among the religious conservatives who shared the stage with Perry at the Fort Worth bill signing. Parsley linked homosexuality and disease rates, and about 1,000 supporters cheered attacks on "activist judges" and the media.
Objections to Perry using a church school as a backdrop to a bill signing preceded his visit, with critics mostly focusing on separation of church and state.
"This is one of the most outrageous misuses of a house of worship for political gain that I've ever seen," said Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Perry shrugged off the complaints.
"We could have signed it in a lot of different locations," Perry said on Fox News. "We could have signed it in a Wal-Mart parking lot, and those who are against people of faith being involved in the electoral process would still have been very much against this bill."
Perry actually signed two measures. One will impose more limits on late-term abortions and require minor girls to get written parental consent. The other would ban same-sex marriage, but voters must approve the constitutional amendment in November.
Perkins said he sees nothing wrong with signing legislation at a Christian school, and he pointed to a consistent theme of the bill-signing: Forces are at work to exclude the religious-minded from political and civic debate.
"People of faith are not backing up, we are not giving up, we are here to stay," he said.
Luis Saenz, Perry's campaign spokesman, said Perry is not the first governor to sign a bill in a religious setting.
Political consultant Marc Campos, who was an aide to former Democratic Gov. Mark White, confirmed White signed a bill in 1984 extending workers compensation benefits to farm workers on the front steps of a Catholic shrine where Mass was held regularly.
He wrote on his Web site that he didn't recall "getting cracked on for holding a bill signing ceremony at a religious institution."