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Religious Flare-up in Calaveras County

SAN ANDREAS, Calif. (CN) - By all accounts from Calaveras County residents - regardless of their religious affiliations - the Door of Hope pregnancy resource center does laudable work.

Door of Hope offers pregnancy education, adoption options, and prenatal and post-natal education, according to its website.

Door of Hope is a religious organization, ardently opposed to abortion. Its website states that while its volunteers "will listen without judgment or rejection," they will also "share the gospel of Jesus Christ."

So some of Calaveras County's 45,000 residents took umbrage nearly a year ago when their elected leaders passed a resolution recognizing Door of Hope for its "endeavors to save the lives of unborn children" while "seeking to enlighten and strengthen the lives of women and young women in Calaveras County by inviting them to test and see for themselves the many blessings that can come from living the teachings of Christ."

Supervisors adopted that resolution on April 8, 2014.

Supervisors that day did not allow time for public comment before their vote - although Door of Hope's executive director spoke, as did some of the supervisors.

Supervisor Merita Callaway abstained and expressed her discomfort at "being asked to recognize a specific religious point of view," according to a board meeting transcript.

Callaway also stated on the record that her understanding of the California and U.S. Constitutions barred the board from taking up and deciding theological questions or positions.

In response, Supervisor Darren Spellman claimed that Thomas Jefferson put forth the concept of a separation of church and state in a letter, not in the Constitution. The board then passed the resolution with 3 votes in favor, 1 against and 1 abstention - and then invited the public to comment, with predictably polarized results.

After the vote, some residents complained to the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. ACLU lawyers wrote a letter to the board on behalf of more than 20 county residents, asking the supervisors to repeal the resolution or at least remove the overtly religious wording, and noting that not allowing public comment before a vote violated California's Brown Act.

Lawyers for Calaveras County responded by stating that while the county did not believe the resolution or its adoption process - the lack of public comment before the vote - broke the law, the Board of Supervisors intended to revisit the issue at another board meeting.

In July 2014, the board placed the issue on its agenda along with the draft of a revised resolution, omitting the potentially unconstitutional text. At the meeting, three of the nine residents who would later file a lawsuit against Calaveras County spoke and reminded the supervisors of their job descriptions - which do not include "a right to take a position on all these other social issues," according to plaintiff Mick Stockard.

Spellman - who along with Callaway left the board earlier this year - responded by calling the opposition to the resolution "discrimination against Christianity."

He added: "Jesus is the light of the world. So beyond that I don't want to get too religious for those people who have a tight stomach right now in the audience. And I believe in God and Christ," according to meeting transcripts.

Callaway again asked for religiously neutral language in the resolution, simply talking about the work of Door of Hope.

"I'm not open to supporting anything in any way that is written the way the resolution was on April 8," she said. "The issues in my mind are very clear.

It was crossing the line between church and state. I have a diverse constituency, many Christians, many non-Christians, and I represent them all."

During a lunch break, county staff drafted yet another proposed resolution - omitting references to unborn children and anything about the teachings of Christ - which Spellman said "looks very much like most documents you'd see that have been watered down to the point of almost irrelevance."

Public comment on the latest draft remained as polarized as before. In the end, the supervisors voted to reject the draft, reinstate the original resolution with a single modification: omission of the word "unborn."

Backed by the ACLU, nine Calaveras County residents filed a writ of mandate lawsuit against the county in February, citing violations of the California Constitution, and taxpayer objections to spending public money to enact the resolution recognizing Door of Hope.

Not all of the plaintiffs are atheists. According to the lawsuit, plaintiffs Cindy Lavagetto, Richard Mines and William Wittmer are Jewish; Don and Patricia Payne are Unitarian Universalists; and John Adams and Rhoda Nussbaum say their spiritual experience incorporates shared elements of several faiths.

Only plaintiffs Stockard and Holly Mines do not identify with any religious faith. But all the plaintiffs say elected officials should stay out of approving or disapproving any particular religious view, as required by the California Constitution.

"By enacting an official county resolution that endorses a specific religious viewpoint, the board violated these fundamental constitutional principles," the 24-page lawsuit states. "Plaintiffs do not question the board's authority to recognize the civic works of religious organizations in the same way that it may recognize the civic works of secular organizations.

"And plaintiffs fully support the right of every individual - including elected officials - to practice, speak about and promote religion," the residents continue. "But plaintiffs do object to the official government endorsement of religion. Our constitutional protections for the freedom of religion and of speech mean that private organizations and individuals have the constitutional right to promote the view that women can 'enlighten' themselves by 'seeing for themselves the many blessings that can come from living the teachings of Christ.' But these same protections mean that the government - which has no First Amendment rights - cannot lawfully endorse these religious efforts. And that is precisely what the county has done here."

The residents want the court to declare that the resolution violates Articles I and XVI of the California Constitution, and to require that any official copies of the resolution made available to the public indicates the violations.

They are represented by ACLU attorneys Michael Risher and Novella Coleman.

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