Calaveras County Board of Supervisors Wrestles With Separation of Church and State
It has long been settled in this country that the government has no business choosing a religion to endorse (or denigrate, for that matter). Public schools cannot, for example, teach that Judaism is better than Christianity; and legislatures cannot pass laws favoring one creed over another. So it was a shock to learn that in April the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors had passed a law to praise a local organization not just for its work in the community but also for its mission of “inviting” women in the community to “see for themselves the many blessings that can come from living the teachings of Christ.”
It was equally shocking to hear that the Board had failed to allow community members - many of whom were at the meeting to oppose this resolution - to speak out about this resolution before they took their vote, a clear violation of our state’s Brown Act, which requires that our public officials listen to us before they make decisions like this.
But what was perhaps most surprising was that when a board member pointed out that part of the resolution improperly endorsed a particularly religion, the measure’s sponsor, instead of simply modifying the language so that it recognized the organization without endorsing a particular creed, defended it, suggesting that the United States Constitution only forbids the government from forcing people to follow a particular religion and does not mandate any separation of church and state.
The Board ultimately passed the resolution on a 3-1 vote, with one Supervisor abstaining because of her concerns that the resolution endorsed a particular religion.
The enactment of this resolution is wrong as a matter of federal constitutional law and, even more clearly, under our state constitution. As the ACLU of Northern California pointed out in a letter to the Board of Supervisors that we sent on behalf of more than 20 Calaveras County residents, our state supreme court has long made it clear that the California constitution is “intended to insure the separation of church and state and to guarantee that the power, authority, and financial resources of the government shall never be devoted to the advancement or support of religious or sectarian purposes.” It therefore requires that the government in California take “a position of neutrality whenever the relationship between man and religion is affected.” Even if it were true that the federal Constitution would allow the government to pass resolutions like this that endorse a particular religion (and, to be clear, it does not), California is different.
To its credit, the Board seems to understand that they messed up. In response to our letter, they agreed to schedule another hearing where they will allow members of the public to air their views about the resolution; the Board will then consider whether to rescind or readopt the resolution. This new hearing is scheduled for July 8.
A video of the April Board of Supervisors meeting can be found here.
The Board’s July 8 agenda item with the new draft resolution is posted here.
On July 8 the Calaveras Board of Supervisors voted to rescind the resolution and replace it with a resolution that is identical with one minor edit. The new resolution is unconstitutional because it does not take a neutral stance on religion as mandated by both the state and federal constitution. The ACLU of Northern California filed a lawsuit on Feb. 18, 2015.
Novella Coleman is a Staff Attorney at the ACLU of Northern California.