Separating church and state: Mayor’s oath of office sparks larger debate
In the last couple of weeks, Franklin Mayor Bob Scott has been called un-American, arrogant and an asshole, but he’s taking it in stride knowing he made a decision based on his conscience and not on fear.
When Scott was sworn in for his second term as mayor, he placed his hand on the U.S. Constitution instead of the Bible. Local swearing-in ceremonies typically aren’t newsworthy, but it didn’t take long before Scott’s oath of office became a heated topic online and throughout the community.
“I did not run for mayor to just be popular. I ran to, hopefully, be effective,” Scott said. “So I guess this is not one of my most popular moments, but I did what I thought was right, not popular.”
Scott, who served as an alderman for 10 years before being elected mayor, said he never imagined his decision would garner national attention, but it seems like everyone has an opinion about the proper procedure for being sworn into office. The small town swearing-in ceremony made the nightly news from Asheville to Raleigh and many political and religious websites provided commentary on the issue. Some have been outraged, claiming Scott is denouncing Christianity, but others have applauded him for standing up for the Constitution and freedom of religion.
“(It) makes more sense to be sworn in on the document that you are upholding and is the law of the land. I have absolutely no problem with anyone being sworn in on a Bible, the Koran, or any other religious document. That is their choice,” Scott said. “I just decided to choose the Constitution because that was the most applicable document dealing with government and governance of the people.”
Scott has been accused of doing what he did for publicity, but he said that is not the case. While he has been sworn into a number of offices using the Bible, recently he’s began thinking more about the First Amendment rights like freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
“It just felt right to me and it had nothing to do with my belief system. It was simply that I felt my personal belief system, religion or partisan politics, should not be a major factor in governance,” he said. “Our government should not favor one group of people over another, and that is what you do when you allow religion into government.”
Some community members have defended his decision and praised his leadership, but others have accused him of denying Jesus Christ. The mayor received an anonymous email from someone claiming to be a shop owner in Franklin threatening that he or she would do whatever possible to hurt Scott politically. Scott ran unopposed in the last election, but the anonymous author of the email said he would not let that happen again.
“Curious to know why you chose to deny Christ. This country was founded on Christian values. The constitution clearly states that,” the email stated. “You are a disgrace, and you should not be sucking the Government tit anymore. Take Nancy and your godlessness back to South Carolina where you belong asshole.”
Those are harsh words, but Scott chooses to turn the other cheek. Just as his hope is that others can respect his personal decisions, he said he respects the rights of others to feel the way they feel.
“I realize that is their right. I try not to change their mind but there have been some instances that did hurt — especially some who said I was an embarrassment to Franklin,” Scott said. “Gosh, I have been called a heathen, atheist, pagan, godless communist and a few other things that are unprintable.”
But overall, Scott said most of the comments he’s received have been overwhelmingly positive. He said he’s received comments from people all over the U.S. saying they support his decision to swear on the Constitution.
“Mayor Bob was voted into his first term by a landslide and no one even ran against him for his second term. He’s made a great difference in our little town,” Bonnie Pickartz said on Facebook. “He’s an honorable person and will defend your right to disagree with him to the end. I am proud of him for taking a stand separating church and state.”
Scott may feel isolated in his decision, but he isn’t the only North Carolina public official to feel more comfortable being sworn in without religious strings attached. Newly elected mayor of Burlington, Ian Baltutis, also chose to not use the Bible, and the words “so help me God” were eliminated when he was sworn into office this month.
The 30-year-old has told media outlets that religion is a very personal concept and that religion isn’t immediately relevant to his position as mayor. The decision to keep his ceremony secular earned him criticism in the community and from the local newspaper. The Alamance News questioned Baltutis’ religious affiliation and whether he would also put a stop to the longstanding tradition of prayer at the beginning of town council meetings.
The Christian Action League has weighed in on both Scott and Baltutis’ oath of office. Even though both mayors feel religion should be separate from politics, Dr. Mark Creech, executive director of CAL, disagreed.
“You can no more separate our nation’s form of government from the Christian religion than you can separate smoke from fire or water from ice,” he wrote in his column. “… Mayor Scott certainly has the right to reject putting his hand on the Bible when taking his oath of office, but his choice sends a dangerous message that places every citizen at risk. His actions declare the erroneous notion that our rights come from the state — not God.”
Scott feels some of this criticism is associated with his recent objections to Macon County Sheriff’s Office’s decision to place “In God We Trust” logos on all of the patrol cars. Even though Sheriff Robbie Holland said the decals were paid for by a private donation, Scott felt like the decision to display the national motto was divisive at best.
The sheriff’s decision came on the heels of the county commissioners’ decision to display the motto on the county courthouse as well. The funding for that project will also come from a private donation through the U.S. Motto Action Committee — a group that has paid for the motto to be displayed on government buildings in more than 50 counties since 2002. Scott, who has years of experience in law enforcement, said just because they can legally display the motto, doesn’t mean they should.
“For those who think it is alright to display this motto, they need to remember that religious freedom survives only when government stays out of religion,” he said. “Many religions subscribe to this thought and do not want government meddling in religious matters.”
For Scott, his service as mayor is about being ethical, not religious. A person’s religious beliefs are a personal matter and he wants only to be judged by his actions and how he represents his constituents.
“I am 75 years old and I can tell you, that sometimes a person can be very religious and not very ethical and very ethical and not religious,” he said. “I think everyone should judge politicians on their ethics and how well they serve the people they represent. To me a person’s religious or non-religious beliefs are personal. I have never used religion for political purposes.”