Sunday, May 24, 2015

Did Representative Mitchell Setzer Share My Email With Another Constituent?

I submitted the following letter to the editor to the Hickory Daily Record several weeks ago. They have yet to print it, so I have resubmitted it and am publishing it here as well.

I want to thank Cliff Moone for his op-ed (HDR 4/28) defending my position (HDR 4/21) on the "Second Amendment Preservation Act" introduced in the General Assembly by Reps. Mitchell Setzer and Jay Adams. Until I read Mr. Moone’s piece, I was not aware of Gregory Ream’s letter (HDR 4/23) criticizing mine.

Ignoring Mr. Ream’s peculiar understanding of the English language and support for a legal theory that has been repeatedly rejected by both state and federal courts since the Eighteenth Century, what struck me most about his letter was how it raised several points that were not actually included in my letter. For example, Mr. Ream says that I claimed “an NRA board member also opposes such legislation” and that the unconstitutional nature of the bill was so clear that an “eighth grade civics student should be able to understand it.” Neither of these points were raised in my letter.

I did make these points, but I made them in a personal email that I sent to Rep. Setzer. There are basically two ways that Mr. Ream could have received this information. Either someone hacked our email, or Rep. Setzer - or someone on his staff - shared the email with Mr. Ream or with someone else who shared it with Mr. Ream. I have contacted Rep. Setzer and the support staff about this possible breach in their email security, but I have not received a reply yet.

I have worked in the computer software industry for over twenty years, so I have no illusions about any of my unencrypted email being private or confidential. However, short of hacking or government surveillance, I think most constituents reasonably expect that email they send to their legislator remains confidential. At the very least we certainly don’t expect that our legislators are sharing email we send to them with other constituents. Hopefully Rep. Setzer will clarify what happened here and reassure the public about his handling of constituent email. Until then, I encourage others to ask him about this issue.
NC Representative Mitchell Setzer

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Reflections on the Lincoln County Board of Commisioners Meeting

Here are my quick initial reflections on Monday's Lincoln County Board of Commissioners Meeting:
  • There was no opening invocation for this meeting (and nobody complained about that, but the post 1954-Pledge was said), and the Commissioners were still able to do the people's business in front of a crowd of over a hundred - standing room only, overflow crowd in the outside hallway.
  • Everyone who wanted to got a chance to speak, including two atheists (we were first!), a Muslim, a Wiccan, a Pagan, and several Christians who spoke out for non-discrimination in invocations (or no invocation, or a moment of silence - one of the Fundamentalist Christian protestors standing near me said he would come and pray out loud himself during the moment of silence if they passed that). A majority of the speakers were critical of Mitchem and advocated an inclusive policy, and even a few of Mitchem's "supporters" acknowledged that they "might have said it differently."
  • Three or four Fundamentalist Christians, several carrying hate literature and signage, spoke in defense of the words that Commissioner Mitchem took back. I won't repeat what they said here. True Islamophobia at its worst.
  • A former Commissioner and Christian joked with Mitchem that he had "really stepped in it buddy, and tracked it in the house!" He also noted that historically Lincoln County had never actually discriminated in who gave the invocations, but that they had had trouble finding someone to do them. As a Commissioner, he used to do them himself (as did the current Commissioners until about 6 months ago when they started inviting local clergy to do them).
  • Mitchem promised to treat people of all religions fairly in his government duties and tried to blame the media for the whole kerfuffle. He didn't clarify his position further, or talk about his vow to walk out if a Muslim gave the invocation - but he did refuse the offer by the Muslim speaker to personally hand him a Koran (Mitchem: "You can put it on the desk").
  • Commissioner Martin formerly proposed replacing the invocation with a moment of silence and was therefore the only vote against the policy that was adopted.
  • I'm looking forward to the first Hickory Humanist Alliance meeting in Lincoln County, and I hope Commissioner Mitchem is remembered as the guy who diversified the invocations at Lincoln County Commission meetings.
Lincoln County Board of Commissioners
Chairman Carrol Mitchem

Meanwhile, it's getting interesting in Mecklenburg County...where the Commissioners apparently still give the invocations. And Rowan has switched to Plan B while they explore their next steps.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

My Comments at the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners Meeting

Here are my prepared remarks delivered at the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners Meeting on May 18. My takeaways are here. Video of the meeting is available here (my comments are at 26:45 - 29:50).

Thank you Commissioners. I live just a few miles from here in Sherrills Ford, but I was raised in Maiden. My father’s ancestors settled in the Maiden area, in what is now part of Lincoln County, in the mid-Eighteenth Century. They were what are called Pennsylvania Dutch – which means they were actually German (not Dutch) – and they likely came here for a variety of reasons, including multiple wars and the associated taxes in their homeland, but also for religious freedom. In Europe at that time the rulers chose what churches were allowed. And many pious Germans of strong convictions migrated to North America, especially Pennsylvania, because it offered them an opportunity to practice their own religion without any interference from the government.
As a life-long resident of Catawba County, I have spent a lot of time in Lincoln County. As a teenager in the late 70s my friends and I cruised the square here in Lincolnton every weekend. I was saddened when It’s was demolished, and I think the Bar-B-Q King in Boger City has some of the finest Bar-B-Q in the area. My family attended your Apple Fest last year, and my wife frequently comes here for shopping and crafts. We love this city in particular for its rich history and beautiful architecture, but mostly for the kindness and welcoming nature of your citizens and businesses.
So as a nontheist and Secular Humanist, I was very concerned about Commissioner Mitchem's recent public comments. I feared that he had needlessly exposed your county to potential litigation which could result in significant expense to your taxpayers. But even more importantly, I was deeply concerned that Commissioner Mitchem’s comments appeared to be intended to denigrate nontheists and religious minorities who attempted to participate in their local government. So I was pleased to read that he has now acknowledged that he shouldn’t have said these things and that it was a mistake. I commend him for this admission. The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway prohibits municipalities from discriminating based on religion in deciding who may give opening invocations. Accordingly, I believe that this Board should move quickly to show that Lincoln County has a policy of nondiscrimination when it comes to invocations at government meetings and not erect barriers to participation by nontheists and religious minorities. [I noted agreement with the previous speaker, Mr. Goodson, regarding a moment of silence or no invocations at all being preferred. Absent that, I again encouraged the board to adopt a policy of nondiscrimination] Thank you for this opportunity to speak.
Additionally, I sent the following to Commissioner Martin in a follow-up email after the meeting:
I wanted to personally thank you, and the entire Board, for the opportunity to speak at last night’s meeting and for adopting a formal invocation policy that does not discriminate against nontheists and religious minorities who meet regularly in Lincoln County. I would prefer to keep religious practices out of government proceedings entirely, but I would also support replacing the invocations with a moment of silence as you suggested. And I very much appreciated your formally proposing this option during the meeting.
Still, I was encouraged by the Board’s action and most of the public comments last night which indicated clearly to me that Lincoln County does respect diversity and tolerance. I commend the Board for your swift and clear resolution of this matter, and I hope that this situation encourages more active involvement in local government by the citizens of Lincoln County - and more diversity in your invocations. If so, I think the Lincoln County experience could serve as a real teaching moment for the nation in the proper way to handle these types of issues.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Lincoln County Board of Commisioners to Discuss Policy Concering Invocations

Update (May 21): The Lincoln County Board of Commissioners approved a nondiscriminatory invocation policy on Monday, May 18. I spoke briefly during the public comments portion of the meeting - and just posted some quick reflections. Under their adopted policy, a “leader or appointee of any assembly that periodically and regularly meets within the county for the purpose of worshiping or discussing their religious perspectives” can sign up to deliver up to four invocations per year. The Hickory Humanist Alliance (a local AHA chapter) is currently working on the logistics for regular meetings in Lincoln County in the future.

In the wake of the recent Rowan County decision ruling that coercive government prayers that advance one faith to the exclusion of all others is unconstitutional, a local reporter for a small town newspaper elsewhere in North Carolina asked the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners chairman Carrol Mitchem what he thought about the ruling. The chairman's intolerant response quickly generated a local and national media feeding frenzy, calls for his resignation from some local residents, and a warning from Americans United for Separation of Church and State (you can read their press release and letter here). His own home town newspaper editorialized that he doesn't speak for their county, and some local Muslim and Jewish residents publicly expressed their outrage. In the secular and atheist community Hemant Mehta and J. T. Eberhard quickly weighed in on the controversy as well.

Meanwhile, at the Hickory Humanist Alliance we have been quietly working with several Lincoln County residents who have expressed interest in delivering a Humanist invocation at a future meeting of the Board. We hope to release more information about this effort in the near future. The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway clearly prohibits municipalities from discriminating based on religion in deciding who may give opening invocations. And an earlier Supreme Court decision, Torcaso v. Watkins, recognized Secular Humanism as a “religion” (for purposes of the U.S. Constitution) against which it is impermissible to discriminate.

In the aftermath of the swift public reaction Chairman Mitchem has now backed away from his comments, and a policy concerning invocations has been added to the Board's agenda for Monday, May 18. Apparently cooler heads have prevailed, and someone consulted an attorney. We urge the Board to quickly adopt a policy of nondiscrimination that does not erect unnecessary barriers to participation by resident nontheists and religious minorities who may not have clergy or established organizations in Lincoln County. On at least two occasions in the past, the county allowed Christian laypeople to give invocations. Lay nontheists and religious minorities should be afforded the same opportunity.

According to the results of an extensive new Pew survey released earlier this week, the number of Americans who do not affiliate with any religion is continuing to grow. There are a number of reasons for this trend, but comments like those made by Chairman Mitchem are surely a factor. Voters have been growing increasingly weary of all the religious talk by our political leaders in recent years, and many nontheists in particular would prefer to get prayer out of government proceedings completely (and the government out of prayer). So we would certainly support the Lincoln County commissioners if they decide to abandon this practice entirely or even adopt a moment of silence to replace it, but if they insist on continuing their invocations we are committed to working with a Lincoln County resident to deliver one that is solemn and respectful and reflects the values that have long been part of our nation’s heritage - including tolerance for those with different views.

Note If you'd like to come out and join us at the Board's meeting on Monday, below are the logistics. They are expecting some local TV coverage and (of course) Fundamentalist Christian protestors. We'll be wearing our black shirts with the HHA logo on them. Be sure to say hello!

Lincoln County Board of Commissioners Meeting
Monday, May 18, 2015
6:30 PM

James W. Warren Citizens Center
115 West Main Street
Lincolnton, North Carolina

Lincoln County Board of Commissioners
Chairman Carrol Mitchem