The Gilbert Town Council held a Special Meeting Monday night (3/22/2010) to discuss the now infamous Land Development Code (LDC) and the need to revise a couple of land use provisions. This meeting took place because of a series of events that led to a major media dust-up that put Gilbert in a most troubling national spotlight. Gilbert, the “forward looking, family oriented community with a small town atmosphere,” had become “the City that forbids bible studies in homes.” This is not the reputation that Mayor John Lewis and the Council Members had in mind for the Town.
How could it have happened?
At Monday night’s meeting, the Mayor earnestly affirmed that Gilbert is a faith-based community, and he stated that it was the faith-based community that started Constitution Week back in 2002. Mayor Lewis reaffirmed this many times throughout the evening.
But, was it the poorly written Code that caused this public relations catastrophe? No. The Town Council came by it honestly. They earned that catastrophe. They earned it for the role they played in denying Gilbert citizens their rights under the First Amendment of the Constitution. What is crucially important is, what will they do to ensure that they never allow those rights to be trampled on again?
First, the Code, while poorly written, was interpreted by an intelligence who, without the specific guidance from the Code, and in the absence of a firm, principled grasp of the First Amendment Rights of citizens, resorted to “his best professional judgment” to rule that a “small scale religious assembly” described seven adults in the private home of a pastor. Therefore, the administrator reasoned, the church meetings could not be held in the home. This Zoning Intepretation, written by Senior Planner/Zoning Administrator, cost Pastor Sutherland $305, payable to the Town of Gilbert.
The Town Attorney was copied on this letter dated 2/26/2010. Having been copied, did the Town Attorney take quick action, spotting the obvious violation, to notify Pastor Sutherland to disregard the letter? After all, the Council had previously advised Town Staff: “Do not enforce the Code until it can be rewritten.” There was no action taken by anyone. Eleven days ticked by. And on 3/10/2010, the 10-page Appeal from the Alliance Defense Fund’s attorneys was hand-carried and faxed to the Town of Gilbert’s Board of Adjustment. Did the Council know about this Appeal? Did anyone act on it? No. Not until the Media contacted the Council on 3/12/2010 did anyone at the Town act. Now, under the glaring lights of the media spotlight, the Council took action.
The Mayor contacted Pastor Sutherland to swiftly apologize and correct this grave error. He and Interim Town Manager Collin Dewitt joined the church group for services. Other Council members got involved as well, as did the Town Attorney, to do everything in their power to make whole again that which they had played a role in breaking to bits. Church leaders from Oasis of Truth Church attended Monday’s meeting and spoke appreciatively of the recent actions of the Mayor and Council and Staff. Other church leaders were present as well.
But, how could an all-American Town have drifted so far from the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America?
This is not the first time this Town Government has denied the First Amendment Rights of its citizens. On February 9, 2010, this same Council, upon the advice of the Town Attorney, under the leadership of Mayor John Lewis, cited an Arizona Revised Statute 9-500.14, and used it to stop public speech about a proposed tax increase during open Council meetings. It is important to note that this statute prohibits the Town from using public resources to influence elections It does not prohibit a town’s citizens from using public resources to express their opinions. Emails to the Town Council from this Gilbert citizen advising them that they were violating our First Amendment rights drew not a single response from a Council member. Rather, the Town Manager, George Pettit, duly and in great detail, reaffirmed the erroneous statute. Finally, several citizens went to the Goldwater Institute for help, and Carrie Ann Sitren emailed a letter to the Council agreeing with the citizens’ position. And then, and only then, did the Council reverse their decision.
The “wheels came off” twice. Will the Mayor “live” the document that he professes to honor? Will the Council members back him up?
This is the simple language of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It is the Law of the Land.
Perhaps, we can work together going forward.
What is very important to remember is that no Constitution is self-enforcing. Government officials must respect their oaths to uphold the Constitution. And it is also the responsibility of we the people to remain vigilant and see that they do.