"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." -- Bertrand Russell

Friday, July 27, 2012

Adventures in Prayer Land, Part 3

This is part 3 in a 3 part trilogy. Part 1 is located here and part 2 is here.

At dinner, I ate a delightful Philly steak sandwich and was entertained by conversation with members of SHOR. Returning to the hearing room, I handed a yellow piece of paper indicating my interest in addressing the Board to the county clerk, who has a desk to the left of the Board members'. Alex, a tall lanky member of SHOR, did similarly.

At the start of the evening's meeting, it was announced by the Chairman that the Board members would again be entering a closed, executive session at the end of the meeting. While myself and others had been at dinner, the Board had been in closed session discussing, amongst other things, the prayer. Part of the schedule for their closed session reads:
Section 2.2-3711.A.7. Consultation with legal counsel and briefings by staff members pertaining to probable litigation, namely, sectarian prayers and the Freedom From Religion Foundation correspondence.
 Apparently, the Board had not yet reached consensus on what action to take about the prayer issue. This was described by Board members as highly unusual. It was also announced that, during the evening session, 20 people had signed on to speak.

The evening session moved quickly through a number of other issues. A request from the Department of Taxation to fix a sales price error on their website and a re-zoning issue were resolved in short order.

Hayden Farrell was the first individual to speak during the evening. Just as in the afternoon session, he would begin a long line of speakers in favor of keeping the prayer.

Hayden is a gruff, rough hewn old man. He began by describing what he thought the Founders intentions were when drafting the First Amendment. He pointed out that there is a church in Philadelphia (Christ Church) featuring the founding features depicted in stained glass windows. He also stated that God was featured prominently on monuments in Washington DC. His words conjured up images in my mind of the Jefferson memorial, the interior walls of which are covered in theistic quotations. Unfortunately for Jefferson, as well as for the veracity of Mr. Hayden's comments, the quotes are grossly taken out of their original Enlightenment era deistic context.

Hayden then commenced with a long diatribe on the deaths of soldiers in World War 2, relating that he was actually a World War 2 veteran. These people died for you, he lamented, for your freedoms.

While seeming to concede some ground to the FFRF, he pointed out that Congress doesn't establish a religion when they give a prayer. This country's affairs are just too important, he bemoaned, not to keep God in mind. He stated that he was petitioning the Board not to stop prayer. After all, the prayer had been a tradition for forty years.

"Our nation is a Christian nation," Hayden stated, matter of factly.

JB Nixon was the next to be called to the lectern. If liberal groups like the ACLU, he began, decided to threaten motherhood, would you not fight? He continued by lamenting the rights he percieved to be constantly threatened by the Obama regime.

The Board tried to call someone named Carl Bagby, but apparently that individual wasn't present. They were therefore skipped and proceedings continued on to Susan Edwards.

Susan had spoken earlier during the afternoon session. As I explained before, Susan is an official with Virginia's 9th Congressional District Republican Comittee. In her new statements, she was brief but stated that she recommended a public hearing to cover the prayer issue.

Next to speak was 48 year old RoxAnne Lane-Christley. RoxAnne is slender, has short, dirty blonde hair, and wire rimmed glasses. She stated up front that she was a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints. She argued that while the Separation of Church and State was an important principle, the Board had never promoted religion. Similar to my own comments in my letter to the Roanoke Times, she stated that religions thrive because of the wall of separation of church and state. However, the similarity between my view and hers ends there.

We are "talking about freedom of religion," she chastised, "not from religion... Their intrusion into our community is innapropriate."

Amens immediately followed. And, just as the afternoon session, there would be several outpourings of amens from the audience during the evening session of which this was merely the first.

Next to speak was a man named Alvin, whose last name I was not able to catch. However, Alvin began stating that Separation of Church and State did appear in the Constitution, just not the American Constitution. It is, however, in the Soviet Constitution, he argued.

Alvin expressed his view that religion was first removed from public life in the 1960s and that this was while no one was watching. He said that he had talked to older folks and asked them where they were and what they were doing as prayer was removed from schools. People had lives, jobs, and other responsibilities, he had been told. We have let God leave us as a people, he argued, and now look what we have wrought.

"Prayer is good for this country and this country is good for prayer!" he bellowed. Amens followed. If we turn back to God only during disaster or tragedy, he said, that is childish.

Ken Srpan was called to address the Board. He spoke about the issue as a matter of intimidation. We have "one alleged, anonymous complaint," he said, hiding behind "out of state bullies."

Ken returned to his seat and William Fizer was called. I would later find out that Mr. Fizer is the head of Logding Technology, LTC Enterprises LLC. According to their website, "Lodging Technology is the originator and unsurpassed leader in infrared sensor-based energy conservation systems for the lodging industry. Under the guidance of founder and President William C. Fizer, the company has become one of the most trusted names in energy management."

Fizer wore a powder blue sports jacket on top of a button down shirt and an American Flag tie. He described the FFRF's actions as an attack and indicated that it was very dangerous. Fizer indicated his belief that all of the founding documents of the United States were based on Judeo-Christian principles. An inalienable right is one granted by a Supreme Being.

Mr. Fizer elicited so many amens from the audience that I sarcastically jotted down in my notepad, "Is this a church?"

Noah Tickle spoke again, though his statements were the only ones in the afternoon to not address the prayer. He rattled on for three minutes of paranoid climate change denial paranoia. I don't remember his opening words, but I am reasonably sure that he said something about "evil liberals". He finished by talking about what he felt to be the Obama administration's War on Coal. I  haven't the slightest idea as to what the Board will do with any of that information.

Mr. Tickle sat back down into the audience, content with whatever it was that he had just articulated.

The next individual to speak is someone that I would find absolutely terrifying. Barney Arthur is a tall, stocky, bald man with a broad bushy beard. His beard is rather ironically like that of Charles Darwins', but the man has a commanding presence and forcefulness that enhances the way that he words fill the space of a room when voiced. I would later learn that this man is part of the Virginia Christians Alliance, an organisation whose logo can be ambiguously described as either a cross or a dagger. The word "militant" almost fails to be forceful enough to describe this group. These are through and through dyed-in-the-wool Dominionists.

The organisation's website is broken up into sections entitled "Creationism", "Sanctity of Life", "Sexual Purity", "Obediance to God", "One Nation Under God", "God Ordained Family", and "Godly Relationships".

According to his profile on the Virginia Christian Alliance site, Arthur is 62 years old and has been married to his wife Linda for the past 42 years. He served in the Vietnam war and is currently retired from being a State Law enforcement Special Agent, a position he held for 33 years. He is now the Senior Pastor for the Living Water Baptist Church of Vinton. He is also the Virginia Christian Alliance's Marriage Amendment Leader for the Roanoke Valley.

The brief description I took on my notepad of Mr. Arthur was that he was, "very forcefull, tall" and "a little angry". I then crossed off "little" and wrote "very".

"What do you want to be known as?" he forcefully roared at the board.

I could very well picture Mr. Arthur roaring, snarling, and gesticulating at his congregation in a small countryside primitive Baptist church. Of all the people there, he was intriguing to me in virtue of his being so much larger than life. He might have been nearly ideologically identitical to many others in the room, but his aggressive and size stored an aggressive thunder that others could not match.

Arthur sat back down, presumably content with what he'd expressed.

The next person to speak was far less of a character. Mark Washington related that he was concerned about the direction of this country and what he felt were attacks on Christian heritage. He talked for a bit about the situation in Giles county.

We "need more god," he roused the crowd, "not less."

Amens bounced around the room.

The next person to address the Board was a brown skinned fellow with a strong Indian accent named (I think) Sunny Shaw. I didn't know what to expect him to say, because he didn't precisely fit with the stereotype of the rest of the people in the room. He did deliver a more liberal message than many others, but ultimately argued for keeping the prayer.

Shaw began by noting that prayers are important to our lives and that all religions teach the same basic values. However, like many of the others who spoke, he stressed his view that without these things there would would be a danger of falling into moral decay. And worse, of children falling into danger.

Pastor Bryan Smith, of First Roanoke Baptist Church, wore a meticulous suit with a blue tie and a black coat. He expressed a great deal of rhettoric about outsiders. His argument concerned defending the rights of the majority from minority groups.

To my amazement, Republican Senator Ralph Smith, of the 19th District Senate of Virginia, spoke next. He stated that he wanted to take a stand against the FFRF. "This is a hill that we need to stand on," he assured the Board.

After the senator was finished, Sandra Booth spoke. Booth is a medium sized, middle aged woman whose Facebook page is covered with Bible verses. She began her statement to the Board by adamantly proclaiming that she is proud to be an American.

Booth spoke about how people turn to prayer at sites of disasters and tragedies, using the recent massacre in Colorado and the now several years old incident at Virginia Tech as examples.

"They took prayer out of our schools," she said, "and look at our children today."

Referring to the operations of the Board, Booth stated, "How can you possibly do this without the help of God?"

The Board called for a five minute recess; this gave me ample time to get to the restroom. When I returned, I talked to Scott Mange, the white bearded head of SHOR that I introduced in part 2. I related to him that I was nervous, and he placed his hand on my shoulder, reassuring me. "You'll do fine," he said. He also related to me that he had talked to the Board about the fact that some people were going to be speaking against the prayer and to make sure that they kept the room in order. I would later learn that he had also talked to the police officers in the room.

Both Alex (the SHOR member who spoke during the evening) and myself were scheduled to speak immediately after the recess was over. Calling the room back to order, Alex was told to take the podium. Unfortunately, I did not take notes on what Alex said, but I remember that he emphasised that we were not trying to destroy Christianity. That religion is a protected minority and this was really about trying to let everyone feel welcome at Board meetings.

I was called after Alex and you can read my statement here.

Now the entire time that the evening session had been transpiring, Bruce and Carrie Hartwick had been sitting in front of me. Recall that Bruce Hartwick had been the suit wearing student from VWCC that I described in part 2. During the evening session, he was simply wearing a red Liberty University t-shirt.

Carrie Hartwick is Bruce's blonde haired middle aged mother. It was her turn to speak next. She expressed her passion for the Bible Belt and all that it represented. "In the Bible Belt," she said, "all religions come together and help each other." Stores close on Sundays so that employees don't have to work. "We worship God," she said strongly.

After her statement, she looked at myself and then back to Bruce and said to him, "First of all, we need to change seats." They moved to the complete opposite side of the room. It was at this time that I noticed the entire row in front of us had cleared out. Our row includes myself and the members of SHOR. Apparently, we had scared them away with our icky non-believer vibes.

Next to speak was a larger man whose name I was not able to record. He also wasn't affiliated with SHOR in any capacity. He defended separation of church and state, and stated that, like the Founders, he was a deist. The Golden Rule is his god, he proclaimed. This man said that the Bible is man-made and talked often about "priest crafters". He described parts of the Bible as demonic and went through a whole series of Old Testament verses.

I remember that at one point during his diatribe, when he describe the first few presidents of the United States as "deists", Barney Arthur sneered, "that's a lie."

The Board asked the room to settle down and to let the man speak. The Chair called for showing respect for all speakers.

I really wish that I knew this mystery deist's name or that I got a chance to talk with him. He reminded me of the village atheists I had recently read about in various books on the history of American Freethought. That in the 19th century, there would sometimes be a single individual in a town that would proudly declare there to be no God and to publicly ask people leading questions about their religion. I don't know anything about this man's educational background, but his description of the Bible as "demonic" or his use of the word "priestcraft" sounded quaint to me. Almost as if some anti-clericalist from the past had sprung back to life to taunt modern theists.

Linda Harden was called to the podium. Linda is a short, thin geriatric woman with a pleasant demeanour. She related that she had just gotten out of teaching her Lady's Bible group.

She said that she used to be an elementary school teacher.

Continuing on with a long narrative about her life, Linda described how she had gone into false labor, could not leave her bed, and had proceeded to read the Bible. She said that she had also been given Presbyterian literature to read after a male relative had been sent to retrieve something for her to occupy her time with.

"The Constitution is based on Biblical principles," she proclaimed. She recommended that we all read the 5000 Year Leap. She bemoaned the fact that the United States is no longer number one in mathematics and science, apparently blaming it on the removal of compulsory prayer and the Bible from public schools. She said that the first thing the Nazis did when they took over an area was to take religion out of public schools. Apparently, this was in another book that she had read.

Danny Go spoke next. "We speak in favor of praying to God," he said. "The god who knew us in the womb."

He promulgated that we have a "heritage based on the Christian religion" along with the same rhetoric we'd been hearing all evening -- the destruction of authority and the degradation of moral foundations.

"Let's pray to the god that gives us the wind," he said, "because we can't stand at all without Him." He then offered a prayer that apparently originated with Thomas Jefferson.

Karen Scott, whose voice was filled with the twang of a Southern accent, appeared next at the podium. She began with a long excerpt from Isaiah 5:20:

Woe to those who call evil good
    and good evil,
who put darkness for light
    and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
    and sweet for bitter.

"We do not have mob rule yet," she continued. We argued that we should not be "modern fools" who "trade God for evil... Get a volunteer lawyer who knows what these men are really doing."

Forcefully, she urged the Board to "get a backbone" to fight "the enemy who wants to take away public prayer."

And when Karen Scott had seated herself once more, the Chair ruled that the comment session was completed. Board member Butch Church proceeded to speak his own opinion.

He was not comfortable with a group from Wisconsin telling him what to do, he related. And he wants the individual who made the complaint to be identified.

"This is the most important issue to be decided upon," he said. "Ever."

Amens from all around the room.

"This decision is too important for us to make without your input... We work for you."

Butch seemed to be answering the complaint from earlier the evening that the Board often acting against local interests. He went on to say they were originally going to simply cancel the prayer. In fact, there had originally been a meeting scheduled for the 10th, which was supposed to be without prayer. But due to the Derecho, the power in the building had gone out and the meeting had been cancelled.

I heard someone in the audience utter, "it's a sign."

I actually have no idea whether or not they were serious.

Butch told the audience to make up their own mind. But it was strongly implied that he thought this was a sign.

"A moment of silence is not acceptable," he went on. "Not acceptable."

He cited Pastor Greg Erby's argument that school shootings had been entirely caused by the removal prayer from public schools, along with the faulty statistics Erby had cited in defence of that position (see part 2.) "You draw your own conclusions," he said again.

"This board has never asked anyone to get down on their knees and pray.... Those who don't want to pray should wait outside. [Scattered amens.] We are doomed if we don't keep this. [A cacophony of amens erupts from the room.] ...I'm not gonna change my mind."

When Butch finishes speaking, there were widespread amens and applause from the audience.

The Board member sitting to the left of Butch began to speak. He related that churches were related important in the area. He then made some attempt to seem accommodating to non-believers -- "If atheists want to come here and tell us why they an atheist, I want to hear it because I'm inquisitive."

He complained that complaints about the prayer were the "activism of a small minority... They're trying to take over this country... This issue is not over with; we will continue to meet and discuss it."

The Board then voted on whether to go back to executive session with county attorney Paul Mahoney. It was stated that they would go upstairs to reach a consensus amongst the Board members and would then come back to tell us.

Unfortunately, the person who had volunteered to drive me back to Blacksburg wanted to leave early so I didn't hear the anouncement myself. Nonetheless, Annie McCollum at the Roanoke Times reports:

Officials finally opted to enter into closed session to discuss the issue and after about 30 minutes emerged with a consensus. Board Chairman Richard Flora said officials will continue with invocation until a policy on nonsectarian prayer can be crafted.

"It's just a road I wish we had never had to go down," Flora said, adding this issue hasn't been easy for anyone. "I give the blessing every evening at dinner. It pains me to do this."

Once a policy is drafted, supervisors will vote on it. No official vote was taken Tuesday, rather a consensus was reached. When it does come to a vote, it's not likely to be unanimous. There were mixed opinions from supervisors.

"For me, prayer is the most important thing," Vice Chairman Michael Altizer said. "I feel we need to go to nonsectarian prayer."

Altizer said that if officials continue their current practice when it heads to court, "I feel in my heart we're going to lose, and I know many people don't want to hear that."

Supervisor Butch Church disagreed.

"I believe if we go to nonsectarian prayer, we're giving up," he said. "It just starts a roller coaster that's going to gain speed every mile."

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