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D.C. group: Thou shalt not read the Bible at city meetings

Deltona City Commissioner Christopher Alcantara

Deltona City Commissioner Christopher Alcantara

BEACON FILE PHOTO

Acting on a complaint from a Deltona resident upset by a city commissioner’s Bible readings at city meetings, a Washington organization is warning the city.

Since he took office in January, City Commissioner Christopher Alcantara has used his comment time just before the end of each City Commission meeting to read aloud Scripture passages.

Alcantara's closing exercise rankles at least one member of the audience, Doug MacDonald, who contacted a private organization, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, for support. That support, MacDonald said, includes a threat of legal action if Alcantara continues.

"There's a fine line to be drawn between freedom of speech and what is to be drawn between government and religion," MacDonald told The Beacon. "He has been reading from the Bible for his comments. He's taking that freedom, and I don't think it's appropriate in his capacity."

Alcantara says he does not intend to back down.

"Oh, definitely," he replied, when asked if he will continue reading from the Bible when the City Commission is in session.

A frequent attendee at commission meetings, MacDonald in June publicly warned he would contact Americans United and file a complaint.

MacDonald said he acted on his own; he is not certain if any other Deltonans share his concerns.

"That doesn't mean there are not any. I just haven't come across any," he said.

Americans United sent a letter to Alcantara and City Attorney James "Skip" Fowler, warning against "proselytizing commentary and Bible reading at City Commission meetings."

"We write to inform you that government officials reading from the Bible or offering other proselytizing comments to the audience during a governmental meeting violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and to ask that Commissioner Alcantara stop doing this," the letter reads.

The letter cites dozens of federal-court cases involving religious expression in public life and on government property, mostly at the district and circuit-appellate levels, and adds "the U.S. Supreme Court has specifically held that public employees have no [italics added for emphasis] free-speech rights in the course of performing their official duties: their speech belongs to the government and therefore is subject to governmental control."

Americans United called upon the city to respond within 30 days with its plans for dealing with the situation.

City Attorney Fowler said he sees no constitutional violation.

"The way Commissioner Alcantara does it is probably OK," Fowler said. "What he's trying to do is impart some wisdom, not just religion. A lot of religions use the Bible."

Fowler expounded in a four-page memorandum.

"AU's conclusions regarding the type of conduct that would rise to the level of an Establishment Clause violation are overstated," Fowler wrote. "AU asserts that Commissioner Alcantara's conduct is not at all protected under Establishment Clause case law; however, the law in this area is not as clear as the organization claims."

Noting the Congress and state legislatures often open their meetings with prayers, Fowler drew on a 2014 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case arising in Greece, New York, where the high court "ruled that local governments may open their meetings with prayers that are explicitly religious and may turn out to be largely confined to expressing the beliefs of one faith."

"The Galloway case was a drastic departure from previous Supreme Court decisions, arguably weakening the hard line of separation between religion and government," Fowler wrote. "The Court noted that previous decisions employed legal analyses that did not properly consider the role of religion in America's history and civic traditions.

"Given the recent relaxed application of separation of church and state principles by [the] Supreme Court, it would likely be a difficult and expensive undertaking for AU to mount a successful legal challenge to Commissioner Alcantara's conduct," he also wrote.

AU Staff Attorney Ian Smith said "there's a lot of cases" that deal with religious expression in the public sector.

"You have judges praying in chambers or in the courtroom — struck down," Smith said via telephone from his office in Washington. "There was a case of a social-services worker who was talking with people, and had religious pamphlets on the wall in his office — struck down. The Supreme Court has struck down prayer at public events and in the public schools."

He said his organization doesn’t want to go to court with Deltona.

"I do non-litigation advocacy. I try to solve these things without litigation," he said. "The council can put a stop to this. We are certainly ready to talk with them."

MacDonald agrees.

"I'm hopeful this can be resolved without any litigation. I'm hopeful the City Commission can rein in Commissioner Alcantara," MacDonald said.

Mayor John Masiarczyk says he is uncertain what to do.

"Alcantara does a lot of things that are different," Masiarczyk added. "Until there's a lawsuit, I don't know that we can address it."


Not West Volusia’s first tangle over free speech

2006: Deltona became embroiled in a dispute over whether to open City Commission meetings with prayer. The opposing sides found a sort of middle ground, by allowing a moment of silence at the outset of their regular proceedings.

2006: Controversy arose over paintings by Deltona artist Lloyd Marcus on display inside Deltona City Hall, including a street scene featuring a rescue mission with a sign bearing the message “Jesus Saves.” The flap subsided after the city contacted the American Civil Liberties Union about the artwork, and the organization saw no problem with the religious sign depicted in the painting.

2013: Americans United demanded that DeLand change its city seal, which uses a cross, a heart and an anchor to represent faith, love and hope. AU complained the seal violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, because the cross is a religious symbol. City officials refused to accede, and the controversy faded.

2017: Deltona city commissioners rotate the responsibility of the opening prayer or moment of silence, either by uttering remarks themselves or inviting clergy or others to pray, or by calling for a silent invocation.

- Al Everson, al@beacononlinenews.com

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