Special council meeting changed

Benton Courier, Arkansas/May 21, 2009

Benton City Council members have rescheduled a meeting to consider a resolution disassociating the city from a controversial morals program

That meeting now is set for 5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 28, at Benton Municipal Complex. An earlier announcement said the session would take place on Tuesday, May 26, but Benton Mayor Rick Holland could not attend that day because of a conflict with the Arkansas Municipal League.

Holland previously asked City Attorney Brent Houston to notify David Knighten, regional director of

The Character Connection, that the city would not be associated with the program.

In that letter, Houston informed Knighten that he should remove any use of the city logo in endorsements of his program, which is affiliated with the Texas-based House of Yahweh. Yisrayl Hawkins, the founder and leader of the House of Yahweh, has been charged with bigamy and tied to other controversial activities.

Knighten is a follower of the House of Yahweh sect. The curriculum he uses in The Character Connection classes is known as "Peaceful Solutions," which was written by Yisrayl Hawkins.

According to the Associated Press, Knighten taught classes at the Pulaski County jail for more than four years, giving inmates lessons designed by the ministry's embattled leader.

Sheriff Doc Holladay said Knighten passed a background check and came with a letter of recommendation from House of Yahweh leader Hawkins.

Hawkins faces charges in Texas that he performed polygamous weddings, practiced bigamy and forced about 40 children - some as young as 11 - to work.

According to Holladay, Knighten didn't proselytize during his classes at the jail, which were attended by at least 780 inmates over the past years. The sheriff even wrote Knighten a letter of recommendation before jailers realized Hawkins faced criminal charges.

The course focused on "the importance of asking" for permission in life, as well as on ownership, respect and self-control. Knighten, 51, said the class discussed "not stealing" from others, whether that be physical objects or the intangible, like time or emotions. He said he volunteered his courses not only at the Pulaski County jail, but also within state prisons in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas, while also working professionally as a business courier and bill auditor.

"It's a nonreligious curriculum," Knighten said. "There's no religion or no race that could disagree with what's taught in there."

Knighten said he gave out other writings by Hawkins when asked by inmates. He said he stopped the practice after jailers complained that some inmates felt uncomfortable with it. Around 10 inmates finished the program and several have reached out to him after their release for further guidance, he said.

Jailers canceled Knighten's jail program in January, nearly a year after Hawkins was charged in Texas courts. However, an Internet video features Knighten reading Holladay's letter, complete with a picture of the sheriff.

"I have a feeling that perhaps this organization is trying to use certain people in certain positions as some kind of character witness, so to speak," Holladay told the AP. "I think our acknowledgment of Mr. Knighten's abilities ... may be being stretched a little further than certainly my intent would be. I'm not a fan of the group."

A similar situation occurred in Benton when Knighten conducted a class for the City Council in March 2008 and held a separate seminar for other city staffers.

"It was benign information, nothing inflammatory - just basic, common-sense tips most people are taught by their parents," Benton Alderman Brad Moore said.

Knighten's Internet video includes a segment showing Holland praising the course from inside his office, with a city logo superimposed across the top.

After Houston sent his letter to Knighten, the segment with Holland was removed briefly, then posted again with a different identification number, Moore said. The segment still is linked to the program's Web site, he noted.

This is not in compliance with Houston's letter, Moore acknowledged. In the letter to Knighten, Houston said:

"The city cannot endorse any business or other type of program, regardless of the nature of the program, whether it is religious, anti-religious, charitable or for profit. Further, use of the city logo, which is property of the city of Benton, is limited by ordinance to activities of the city and cannot be used outside of that context. Your use of the city logo violates the city's property interests."

Houston's letter further stated that any further use of a video of Holland endorsing the program, use of the city logo any other form of endorsement by the city of Benton is unauthorized.

In the video, Holland praised Knighten's program, saying: "It was just amazing the difference in focus in our people in the direction they went from just one program. It's a great program in a day where there are so many negative influences out there."

At a recent council meeting, Holland received a certificate of commendation from Knighten, who praised the mayor's "moral excellence."

Another follower of the House of Yahweh, William Crouse, attended a Benton City Council meeting in August 2006 and warned those present that a nuclear war was coming the following month. Crouse predicted this would "kill a third of man and a quarter of the earth," a prophecy reportedly originating with Hawkins.

Moore and four other aldermen requested next week's special meeting to clarify the city's relationship with the program.

Hawkins, born Buffalo Bill Hawkins, founded the House of Yahweh in 1980 - three years after being fired from the Abilene, Texas, police department for having beer in his patrol car.

Hawkins began preaching polygamy in the early 1990s, saying women had to accept it or leave and forfeit heaven, several former members said. Hundreds of his followers, scattered across the world, have legally changed their last names to Hawkins. Many also have taken biblical first names that - like their leader's - include the letter "Y."

Some of Hawkins' teachings have bee aired on Benton's community access cable channel. Knighten, who volunteers for Benton Community Access Association, offered the tapes for the channel, said Johnny McMahan, president of BCA.

Though Benton Alderman Joe Lee Richards described the House of Yahweh as a cult, McMahan said the channel continues to air the videos along with recordings of other church services.

"We don't censor anything," McMahan said. "We don't try to chill free speech."

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