Religion and politics mix in East County
East County Californian (2006-09-07) Michael Mason
Church State Separation,
El Cajon City Council,
Grossmont Union High School District
By Michael Mason
THE EAST COUNTY CALIFORNIAN September 7, 2006
Editors Note: This is part two of a two-part series looking at the relationship between Christianity and politics. [SCANNED BY RAYMOND LUTZ, 9/24/2006]
East County San Diego is a cornerstone of conservative Christianity. While denials. abound, the reality is that Christianity and politics here are so interwoven that separation of the two is as difficult as extracting a stubborn piece of corn stuck in your teeth.
It is not only prevalent in standard political elections, but also in races such as for school board district seats. Anyone who has lived here for any length of time also knows that this phenomenon is hardly new concept.
Many politicians of the Christian faith push their religious agenda not out of disregard for others, but because their faith is ingrained in them and is a part of who they are.
Yet, sometimes, things can go a bit too far.
One only needs to start back 10 years ago this August, a few weeks before the Republican National Convention held at the San Diego Convention Center, when Bob Dole was nominated to run against Bill Clinton.
Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group, and other supporters of a Human Life Amendment began their efforts to shut down clinics and picket abortion providers in the San Diego area. Skyline Wesleyan Church was set up as the headquarters, where rallies were held. A speaker at one of 'the rallies was Howard Phillips, a conservative-GOP political operative who is now chairman of The Conservative Caucus and chairman of The U.S. Taxpayers Party. The latter is the group which was courting Pat Buchanan as a possible presidential nominee. Phillips is a Christian Reconstructionist and follower' of theologian R.J. Rushdoony and his Chalcedon movement. Another speaker was Alan Keyes, a former United Nations ambassador, and a former U.S., Assistant Secretary of State, as well as candidate for President that year.
Currently there is a local school board with a full boat of Christian conservatives running the show: the Grossmont Unified School District Board of Trustees.
When Ted Crooks, the former board president, voted in favor of expanding the district's anti-discrimination statement to include a reference to sexual or perceived sexual orientation, he outraged a local coalition of devout Christians. He also voted to support sending students to Camp Minitown, a leadership camp sponsored by the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ), whose mission is "specifically designed to address and reduce inter-group prejudice and conflict, and to prepare youth to be leaders of a diverse community."
Those two seemingly innocuous votes would be Crooks' undoing. To oust Crooks and thus eliminate perceived tolerance of what some considered a concerted homosexual agenda, three self-proclaimed Christians banded together, rallied their support base and saturated the local media to win a majority on the Grossmont board. As future board president and former Baptist minister Jim Kelly put it, "There is no doubt we have been sent a mandate." And for that mandate, they made sure to thank God and the grass-roots activism that got them elected.
It was actually one person who toordinated that grass-roots activism: trustee Gary Cass, the only Christian conservative on the board at the time. After the 2002 election, Cass went from being the lone vote of opposition to the voice of the board's Christian majority. Cass would leave the board in 2004 to become the executive director of the Florida-based Center for Reclaiming America for Christ, whose mission is "to inform, equip, motivate, and support Christians; enabling them to defend and implement the Biblical principles on which our country was founded." In his new role, Cass would be a leader in the effort to save Terri Schaivo, share his vision for "Reclaiming America" with the White House, and meet privately with Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.
But according to his Reclaim America biography, his other claim to fame was transforming Grossmont's board: "Not content with the status quo, Gary successfully ran for the Grossmont Union High School Board in 1998 and ended up the lone Christian of the board's five members. Through networking with other like-minded pastors, activists, and community members, Gary helped to effectually change the composition of the school board. Upon his departure, after two terms of service, four of the five members were Christian, showcasing Gary's impressive 80 percent success rate when recruiting and running Christians for public office."
Cass succeeded in creating a board full of political allies. By 2002, Grossmont's theocratic majority governed the district. The Christian trustees began implementing their vision of reform, which meant narrowing opportunities for political opponents to express dissenting opinions.
They started by eliminating the power of the student board representative to offer or second a motion, placing the student representative in an advisory position. The board claimed that they were the elected community representatives, and that as adults they had the experience and better judgment for making difficult decisions. That the student board member just happened to be the son of recently ousted trustee Ted Crooks was merely a coincidence, they claimed.
Other controversies followed, including a number of micromanaging attempts to censor curriculum and other school-related activities the board deemed "inappropriate." The most telling example took place when the Anti-Defamation League requested to show a tolerance and diversify film at one of the high schools. The board reviewed the film arid told the AFL to remove an offensive scene. The scene? A gay San Francisco police officer discussed. discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The most disturbing example of the board's zealotry came from the Reverend Gary Cass. Cass staged, pro-life rallies at the district's various high schools in which he would display large posters of aborted fetuses. When Cass brought his road show to Santee High School, some students reacted against his presentation. Soon after, Santee High would gain national attention due to a violent school shooting that took place around the time the infamous Columbine incident had made school violence part of the national political dialogue. In response to the Santee incident, Cass, ever vigilant in his quest to raise awareness about his pro-life leanings, blamed the shootings on the students' "disrespect for life," because of the cool response he encountered during his anti-abortion rally.
Unabashed in altering district policies to reflect their religious principles, Grossmont's newly elected trustees also held strong to their fiscal conservative priorities. Grossmont had not passed a school bond measure in over 35 years. Board members argued that even though Californians voted in Proposition 39, effectively lowering the voting threshold necessary for passing a school bond to 55 percent, the trustees refused to entertain putting a bond out to voters unless it passed the two thirds threshold established under California's Proposition 13. The legal 55 percent voting threshold, in their opinion, wasn't conservative enough.
As trustee Jim Kelly explained, "Let's face it, I'm a conservative guy,” said Kelly. "I've always been a conservative guy. These I are my principles."
The community did not agree with their position, and bond measure H passed in 2004.
With a, four-vote, majority in place at the end of 2002, the board decided to oust Superintendent Ward Granger in favor of a handpicked candidate that board member Jim Kelly got to know during his term on the county board of education. Within hours of Granger's dismissal, Terry Ryan was named to the position on a 4:1 vote.
Tom Page, the dissenting. vote, quickly realized he had no allies on the board. He decided not to run for reelection the next year. He would be replaced by Larry Urdhal, a local businessman and self-proclaimed fiscally conservative moderate. Urdhal, however, had connections to the Christian alliance on the board; his win gave the board an unopposed 5-0 majority.
As contract negotiations got underway in 2004, Cass announced his departure. The board chose to appoint a replacement to keep their conservative majority secure rather than hold a special election. The board did, not choose another minister or active member of Reclaiming America for Christ. They chose someone who could strengthen their network of conservative connections and, in true self-serving fashion, a person who could help advance their political careers once they chose to pursue other public offices. His name is Ron Nehring, the vice-chairman of the California Republican Party, a senior consultant for conservative strategist Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, and former colleague of lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
The debate over the teaching of 'intelligent design' is now a hotbed issue. In a November 2005 interview with San Diego
City BEAT, current Grossmont Board members Priscilla Schreiber and Evelyn Wills voiced their opinions on the matter. Schreiber, a member of the Skyline Church, said she would "absolutely" support the teaching of intelligent design in her district.
"As Christians, we would love to have that debate and that discussion in our classrooms, so it's not always a one-sided issue," Schreiber said. "But there's always the separation of church and state, which is obviously a perpetration of an interpretation that was never in the founding documents of our Constitution.
"I think it has a place in our schools, but that's nothing that we're even looking at. We have way too much'to deal with."
Schreiber also said she likes the idea of returning to the days when the Ten Commandments were posted in the classroom. "I believe that those values are good enough for the public arena," she said. "I just don't know why people are so afraid of our own heritage and our own roots, maybe because they don't want the accountability of God."
Wills, the school board vice chair, said, "Even though I support creation versus evolution, right now, unless the laws are changed, you'd have a problem there. But I do have a problem with the letter of the law. If I could choose both of them that would be ideal."
As a testament to East County practicing Christians, 45 percent there attend services every week.
El Cajon Mayor Mark Lewis believes that religion has a place in politics only to the extent that everyone is an individual, and as such has their personal faith and beliefs. As for the mayor, such personal beliefs might come into play in his political role, but not to the detriment of any particular group. "My constituents are of a wide range of religious beliefs," said Lewis: "I attend almost a different church every week. Though I haven't yet gone to a mosque."
Art Madrid, mayor of La Mesa, has a different take of the subject of religion and politics. "Religion is entrenched in political agendas," he said. "It compromises the integrity of religious philosophy." He says that many churches are jeopardizing their tax-exempt status. Madrid says that there is no place at all formally for religion in politics. "There should be significant separation. Most politicians don't know where their responsibility for religion ends and politics. begin."
According to Madrid, the most prevalent abuse occurs in, of all places, East County, San Diego.