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When Your Freedom Gets on My Nerves

As for Chiaromonte, who goes by the name, Reverend Christopher, his shtick is to bless out members of city council and pronounce curses for one thing or another. This time, he called a point of order to comment on council’s cessation of invocations before their meetings.

He had evidently investigated who instigated the practice, but he criticized all for going along with it. He harked back to the challenge Councilman Cecil Bothwell faced for running as an atheist when the North Carolina constitution prohibits it. At the time, Bothwell had countered he was a post-theist, and he was rewarded by numerous speaking engagements by atheist groups across the country.

The state constitution disqualifies from serving in office “any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.” Chiaromonte, perhaps confusing the amendment with a previous amendment form 1835, said the document required those serving in elective office to be Christians of the Apostolic or Nicene creed. He said he knew of no Christians who would not pray before having a meeting, and resolved that the meeting was illegal.

When Bothwell offered to correct some technicalities, and clarify he could indeed hold office because the state law is in conflict with current interpretations of the US Constitution, Chiaromonte shot back. The conversation devolved to shouting confusion which disrespected the decorum of the chamber. Mayor Esther Manheimer, who usually runs meetings efficiently, asked Chiaromonte to sit down. His time was up. He persisted.

Finally, Manheimer cracked the gavel and shouted, “All right. Sit. Down. Now. We’re done with this discussion.” As Chiaromonte left in a dramatic whirlwind, refusing to participate in what he termed an “illegal meeting,” Manheimer cringed, apologizing to her peers. Then, she added, shaking the gavel, “I need one of these at home.”

The exchange presented somewhat of a moral dilemma. Surely some will say the mayor infringed on Chiaromonte’s freedom of speech. They may allege she further promoted an ungodly state, silencing the voice of Christianity.

But then, many don’t take Chiaromonte seriously in a religious capacity. One time, when he antagonized former Mayor Terry Bellamy to the point of her asking him to leave, she said she had met prophets before, and he was not one of them.

Some may argue false prophets should be silenced. After all, Bibles are forbidden in schools, and now council members cannot pray. However, Americans have historically viewed the prohibitions on Congress in the First Amendment to apply to local governments. That is, government “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” America doesn’t honor “death to the infidel” programs – yet.

But that does not translate to a right to interrupt public meetings. In a reduction ad absurdum argument, we could ask what happens if every minister in town were to get three minutes before council. The sad fact is, most normal people are busy working or raising kids. It is mostly those who, through age or disability, afford the luxury of attending city council meetings. And that, of course, skews public hearings away from the plight of the working man and toward the demand side of the economy.

Former Asheville City Councilman Dr. Carl Mumpower used to take issue with the “grandstanding” and “crocodile tears,” noting people did not have to get their face on TV for three minutes every meeting to bend council members’ ears. They could call, email, or have a sit-down.

Besides, there is also something in the First Amendment about “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” Even government has the right to conduct its meetings without constant interruption. Local governments frequently struggle trying to give people a public forum, and yet prevent it from being dominated by the same voices, people with three minutes of opinion on everything but nothing to contribute to the furtherance of public policy.

A few years back, the Buncombe County Commissioners tried cutting public comment off from the televised portion of their meetings, and that was viewed as a conspiracy to mask corruption. Many of the regulars took advantage of public TV while it was made available. Some of their shows were even filmed during public meetings. But then, due to what some say was mismanagement of resources and others claim was another conspiracy, that venue of expression was defunded.

In the end, this is America, where people may say and claim what they want. They can believe or say they believe as they want. We tolerate each other as we grow, but our rights end when they infringe on others’ rights. Manheimer managed the situation appropriately when she gaveled down Chiaromonte. His freedom of religion and speech was on the verge of trumping the people’s right to assemble. Order was breaking down.

But a bigger question looms. As Chiaromonte asked, if the members of city council don’t believe in God, why are they afraid to let those who do invite him into their meetings?

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