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By Associated Press

FORT WORTH, Texas — Republicans in one of the most populous counties in Texas voted Thursday to keep a Muslim doctor as their party vice chairman following infighting over some members’ claims about his beliefs.

The executive committee of the Tarrant County Republican Party voted 139-49 to reject the effort to purge Shahid Shafi, a surgeon and City Council member in suburban Fort Worth.

“This vote reaffirms the commitment by a majority of Tarrant County Republicans to our core values and moral compass, a demonstration of our allegiance to the Texas Republican Party Platform and the Constitutions of the United States and Texas, which strictly prohibit religious and racial discrimination of any kind,” Tarrant County Republican Party Chair Darl Easton said in a written statement.

“While tonight’s vote brings an end to this unfortunate episode, it also demonstrates we are a party that respects the right of those who disagree on an issue to have a seat at the table and their voices heard,” according to the statement. “Religious liberty won tonight and while that makes a great day for the Republican Party of Tarrant County, that victory also serves notice that we have much work to do unifying our party.”

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported at least one precinct chair, Arlington Republican Dale Attebery, was said have to tossed his ID at the lecturn after the vote. Easton said he accepted that as Attebery’s resignation.

Shafi told reporters that his faith in Tarrant County Republicans had been reaffirmed.

“As we struggled through the last few months, it would have been easy for me to quit. But I stayed on to fight,” he said. “We were fighting for religious freedom … and today we have come out victorious.”

The Thursday vote result took a stand “against bigotry of all kinds,” he said. “Our union is a little more perfect today.”

A party precinct chairwoman, Dorrie O’Brien, had led the call to oust Shafi on claims that he may be more loyal to Islamic law or connected to a terrorist group. Shafi denied both claims and other Republicans have called them bigoted.

“Religious freedom is at the core of who we are as a nation and state,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement Wednesday, “and attacks on Dr. Shafi because of his faith are contrary to this guiding principle.”

Other top Republicans, such as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Land Commissioner George P. Bush, also had condemned the effort to oust him.

Cruz tweeted at one point that discriminating against Shafi because of his religion was “wrong.” The First Amendment protects religious liberty for every faith, Cruz said on Twitter.

Former Tarrant County GOP leader William Busby earlier told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that some large corporate donors “don’t want to be associated with a party that’s going in the direction of excluding people based upon their religious beliefs.”

Shafi is one of two party vice chairmen and has worked for the party for about 10 years, including as a delegate to the state party convention. He’s serving a two-year term as vice chairman and his election in July drew one lone dissenting vote among the approximately 250 precinct chairmen who voted that day. That lone dissenter was O’Brien.

A handful of others have joined her in opposing Shafi. O’Brien did not respond to a request for comment by The Associated Press.

Her call to reconsider Shafi’s appointment gained traction with some party members after Tarrant County turned blue in the U.S. Senate race in November.

The State Republican Executive Committee in Austin responded to the move by passing a resolution recently that stressed Republican members across Texas have the “freedom to practice all faiths.”

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“After 3 1/2 years, our wonderful Sarah Huckabee Sanders will be leaving the White House at the end of the month and going home to the Great State of Arkansas,” Trump tweeted, including the time Sanders worked on his campaign in addition to her service during his first two-plus years in office.

“She is a very special person with extraordinary talents, who has done an incredible job! I hope she decides to run for Governor of Arkansas — she would be fantastic. Sarah, thank you for a job well done!”

At a White House event minutes later, Sanders said she would “try not to get emotional, because I know crying can make us look weak sometimes.”

“[Trump] has accomplished so much in these two-and-a-half years, and it has truly been something I will treasure forever … ” she said, her voice cracking. “I have loved every minute, including the hard minutes.”

Sanders’ tenure at the White House was marked by contentious public confrontations with the media over the president’s agenda and her own misstatements, as well as a diminishing number of official briefings for the press. She has not briefed the media for 94 days — since March 11 — more than double the previous longest dry stint of the Trump administration.

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It was one of many occasions on which journalists questioned the credibility of Sanders’ assertions from the White House podium.

But Sanders could also act as a ready and reliable conduit for information behind the scenes with some of the same outlets she clashed with in front of television cameras.

A daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sanders, 36, became a surrogate for Trump on television during his 2016 campaign for the presidency and joined his White House team in January 2017 as a deputy assistant to the president and deputy press secretary. She was promoted into the press secretary role in July 2017, succeeding Sean Spicer.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, was re-elected in 2018 and cannot seek re-election in 2022. Sanders has not announced any plans to seek office.

Lauren Egan contributed.

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