Back in June, Brian Dahle, a Republican member of the California State Senate, held a meeting for Christians. Does that sound weird? It was weird.
According to the description of the event on Facebook, the Faith & Values Town Hall wasn’t even meant for people of non-Christian faith, much less atheists, given that the invitation was addressed to Christians and held at Little Country Church in Redding.
An inclusive event, this was not.
Even if Dahle and Redding mayor Julie Winter said it was inclusive, it’s not clear how non-Christians would’ve heard about the event or if similar events for non-Christians were in the works. Still, just imagine the right-wing outrage if Rep. Ilhan Omar held an event in her District aimed at a Muslim audience. It would never get a free pass.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation soon wrote a letter to Winter and Dahle arguing that the event was “wildly inappropriate and shows poor judgment that bodes ill for your constituents.”
Winter responded to FFRF with a curt dismissal of their complaint. According to an email from FFRF, she said that the event was targeting Christians because they’re the “largest group of people of faith in the community” but everyone was welcome to attend… and then she compared FFRF’s criticism to that of racists.
I would not agree with your position that elected leaders cannot hold town halls or meetings with specific groups of people who have an interest. If the local atheist group wants to sponsor a townhall, I’m happy to go talk to them. If I held a townhall for atheists or folks from the LGBTQ group I seriously doubt you’d be protesting that I didn’t invite straight folks or religious folks.
It’s interesting to me that you are specifically targeting Christians as if they do not have the right to hold a forum for elected leaders? That would not line up with our constitution and smacks of religious bigotry, something I hold as reprehensible as racial bigotry.
The issue wasn’t that she and Dahle were meeting with Christians — any group is welcome to schedule an appointment with their offices and share their concerns. The issue is that Dahle himself scheduled this event, and he clearly has no intention of doing that with religious minority groups.
That’s part of what FFRF said in a rebuttal letter just sent to Winter. They reiterated their earlier points about how this meeting was a gift for Christians, not one of many outreach events for people of all faiths and no faith.
If the City of Redding officially sponsored the “faith and values” town hall event, then the Christian-only invitation is a religious endorsement that violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. If this religious event was privately sponsored — as you appear to argue — then all attending elected leaders, who are unquestionably present in their official capacity, are prohibited from endorsing or favoring religious messages, regardless of the sponsoring group’s religious affiliation. It is one thing to simply attend various groups’ meetings, forums, and town halls in your official capacity as mayor. But it is quite another, and constitutionally dubious, for an elected representative to sponsor religious meetings or to endorse one particular religious [group’s] views.
FFRF also quotes what she said at that meeting. It amounts to a sermon rather than a politician’s speech. She asks the audience to “pray for us.” She says she’ll always “hold true” to her faith. She talks about how she “was called to be salt and light to the earth” and will “bring the values of the King and [His] Kingdom to the marketplace.”
Again, you can argue she’s talking about secular ideas using the language of faith, but it’s clear she wants to use her office to promote her vision of God. That’s not okay. More importantly, there’s nothing in that speech that suggests it’s meant for an audience of non-Christians.
It’s up to her and Dahle to prove this isn’t just a promotion of Christianity. Where are their town halls for non-Christians? How will they defend the rights of non-Christians? There’s no reason to think they have their constituents’ best interests at heard… at least if those voters don’t share their myth.
(Screenshot via YouTube)