Religion survey sparks political squabble

Town politicians are engaged in a heated debate over the role of faith in local government.

The Miami Herald/March 22, 2004
By Beth Reinhard and Samuel P. Nitze

After the Christian rock anthem and the pastor's Sunday morning welcome, Davie Mayor Tom Truex stepped up to the pulpit.

He urged the congregation at Calvary Chapel Sawgrass to look inside their church bulletins at a survey of candidates' opinions on religious issues. It was two days before the March 9 Town Council elections.

''Brothers and sisters, I am here to tell you that I think it's time for the community of faith to stand up and be counted at the ballot box,'' said Truex, who was not on the ballot and helped write the questionnaire. ``If you believe we'd be better off in our community with godly, righteous people in elected office, then I would encourage you to vote or else not complain when we get something less.''

Only two candidates responded to the questionnaire: Councilwoman Susan Starkey and political newcomer Sandra Amaya, both Republicans backed by Truex. Their Democratic opponents, political consultant Mitch Topal and Councilwoman Judy Paul, did not.

''If a candidate did not respond to the request for information, it's probably because they know that whoever is requesting the information wouldn't be happy with the answers,'' Truex told parishioners.

Word of the speech spread quickly among a circle of political activists, mostly supporters of Topal and Paul, who complain about a continued intermingling of religion and town politics.

They say Truex went too far -- that the speech was an improper endorsement from the pulpit, the questionnaire an inappropriate foray by a church into politics, and the whole business a sign that religion has become too prominent in Davie's public sphere. Similar accusations surfaced months ago when the town made way for more storefront churches, and when it approved a 57-acre project by the Christian nonprofit Sheridan House, whose president sought campaign donations for Starkey and Councilman Mike Crowley.

''In being active in politics for 30 years, I have never seen this type of activity in Broward anywhere before, this kind of mixing of church and state,'' said Broward Democratic Party Chairman Mitch Ceasar.

Religious Bigotry

On the other side, Truex and his allies say their critics practice a form of religious bigotry by implying that politicians should hide their faith or at least keep quiet about it. One supporter noted that Democratic politicians commonly seek and receive support from black churches, suggesting that a double standard was at work. In a wide-ranging letter to residents headlined, ''ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!'' Truex wrote: ``I'm being assaulted for talking about my faith in God.''

If the Sierra Club can issue a questionnaire, he asks, why not a church?

''Many Christians have had the opinion for years that they ought not to get into the dirty business of politics,'' Truex said during an interview in his law office, hands wrapped around a coffee mug from his own church, First United Methodist of Fort Lauderdale. ``But one of the reasons politics is so dirty is because we haven't gotten involved.''

The conflict in Davie is a small-town version of a national debate pitting religious groups and social conservatives who accuse the courts and culture of driving faith from public life against secularists and liberals who say the religious right is imposing its version of morality on everyone else.

In Davie, both sides wielded religion as a political cudgel in the days leading up to the election. The mayor's speech, delivered at two services, and the questionnaire, distributed to more than 1,000 parishioners, included some potentially misleading information. Democratic activists, still angry over last year's election in which Republicans gained a council majority, baited voters with inflammatory talk of a right-wing takeover.

A tense, post-Election Day recount that showed Starkey leading Topal by nine votes, only served to heighten emotions in both camps.

Republican activist Scott Spages described criticism of Truex and Starkey as part of an anti-Christian ``whisper campaign.''

''I think it goes to the issue of our society being driven away from our religious beliefs, which ought to be the bedrock of how we choose our leaders. What is your integrity? What is your character?'' he said. ``We have driven people of religion away from government.''

Campaign Rarity

A campaign questionnaire issued by a religious group appears to be a rarity in Broward politics, with the exception of the Christian Coalition of Florida's guide to state and federal candidates. Among the issues raised in the Calvary Chapel survey: What role, if any, should faith play in the conduct of elected officials? Do you favor limiting or increasing the number and size of houses of worship? How do you interpret ``separation of church and state?''

Topal and Paul said they declined to answer because the questions were narrowly focused on matters of faith, and, they suspected, designed to make them look bad. Both candidates are Jewish, though the church pastor and Truex said they did not consider their religion in formulating the survey.

''I didn't feel that responding to only religious issues was appropriate,'' Paul said. ``I felt it was one-sided and contrived.''

Topal supporters were so incensed when they learned that Truex planned to give a political address at Calvary Chapel that they came to the service, videotaped the speech, transcribed it, and distributed it via e-mail. In scrutinizing the speech, Topal said he was offended by Truex's suggestion that voters faced a choice between the ''godly and righteous'' or ''something less.'' The former candidate offered his own inflammatory rhetoric: ``He thinks we're a bunch of heathen devils.''

Stands by Faith

In another dramatic passage, Truex lamented a ''serious, concerted effort'' to limit the number of new churches and to tax their construction. Paul said he overstated the case, making too much of her recent suggestion that the council re-examine a 1982 measure waiving development fees for religious institutions.

The council discussed the measure at a recent meeting but did not vote. Yet in reply to one survey question, Starkey said she had ''voted'' against an effort to start assessing fees on houses of worship. She would not explain her response.

Truex stood by the survey, saying a person's faith and views on religion are often reliable indicators of their fitness for office. He is a Christian above all else and ardently defends his right to place God at the center of his life, even his public life as mayor.

''If you are a devout person and have a sincere belief in God, you are more likely to be an ethical and moral leader,'' Truex said.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.

Educational DVDs and Videos