Church-state debate brewing |

Church-state debate brewing

Hayden board to consider formal policy for TV content

Hayden pastors Doug Zirkle and Janet Babish stand at the Hayden Congregational Church. They say they feel they were discriminated against because the town refused to run an announcement on public access television for vacation Bible school.
Matt Stensland

— Many Hayden religious leaders think a dangerous precedent was set last month when the town refused to post a vacation Bible school announcement on the town’s public TV channel.

In a town where an opening prayer is said before every Town Board meeting, Hayden town staffers are citing separation of church and state as the reason for not running the announcement on Channel 10. There is no formal policy regulating what makes it onto Channel 10, but the town controls the content. Community events such as the library’s summer reading program and school activities are advertised on the TV channel.

Hayden Town Manager Russ Martin said an “informal administrative policy” implemented by past town managers led to the staff’s decision not to run the Bible school announcement.

“Staff is being consistent,” Martin said Monday. “There is no formal policy, but I think that may need to change.”

At a July 20 Hayden Town Board meeting, Mission of Grace Baptist Church Pastor Doug Zirkle addressed the board during public comment. He read a statement on behalf of about 20 Hayden religious community members that came to the meeting. The large number of people attending the meeting and Zirkle’s statement came as a surprise to several of the board members. Because the issue did not appear as an agenda item, trustees just listened to the comments and suggested it be added to a future board agenda.

This “should be a matter of urgent concern to everyone who believes in free speech and who believes that free speech should be protected and upheld at all costs,” Zirkle told the board.

Zirkle said Hayden churches have used Channel 10 in the past to advertise community events.

“We were told, though we’ve used it in the past, that now it is an issue of separation between church and state and cannot be used for religious things,” Zirkle said.

“We are not proselytizing,” Zirkle said. “We’re simply letting people know what’s available to them and their families if they’re interested.”

Martin was out of town during the July Town Board Meeting, but he said Monday that he thinks the issue should be placed on the Town Board’s agenda either Sep. 7 or Sept. 21.

“If this is negatively affecting people, we should look at making this a formal policy,” Martin said.

That decision is ultimately up to the board, but Martin said it is good that the religious community made the Town Board aware of its concerns.

“It may not change the answer,” Martin said. “It just might mean we may look into it.”

Martin said the town should look at what policies other towns have in place, and the town’s legal counsel should be consulted before any policy is made.

Hayden Mayor Joe Schmin-key said Tuesday he did not think it would be difficult to come up with a policy to address what announcements appear on Channel 10. He did not want to talk about potential policy ideas because there hasn’t been a public discussion on the issue.

“I think it’s going to have to be addressed,” Schminkey said. “It would probably be a good idea to have a policy in place (so) it’s black and white.”

Schminkey acknowledged there is an inconsistency in the town’s informal policy of barring religious announcements and the Town Board participating in opening prayer before each meeting. The opening prayers might become part of the discussions, he said.

“If you’re going to have a total separation of church and state, the opening prayer shouldn’t be there,” Schminkey said. “It’s just the way it’s always been. It’s a tough issue.”

“Administrative policy and board policy need to come together there,” Martin said.

Trustee Lorr-aine Johnson said there should be restrictions as to what is allowed on Channel 10, but those restrictions shouldn’t include an advertisement for something such as the Bible school.

“I don’t see the problem with vacation Bible school,” Johnson said.

It is the extreme views that have some concerned. The example of a Satan-worshipping cult wanting to advertise an event in Hayden was brought up as one extreme the town might encounter if the channel was opened up to any type of message.

“What does it open the door to?” Schminkey asked.

Hayden Congregation Ch-urch Pastor Janet Babish said Tuesday that opening up Channel 10 to any sort of announcement might be the only fair policy.

“It bothers me when we live in fear of what might happen, ” Babish said.

– To reach Matt Stensland, call 871-4210

or e-mail

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