VWC Students Go to DC. And Richmond. And the Norfolk City Council

The Center for the Study of Religious Freedom unveiled a new class this past winter session designed to give students the tools they need to participate fully in the promotion of religious freedom. And the students enrolled in “Lobbying & Religious Advocacy” during this past winter session proved just how useful those tools could be.

The class, made up of a wide variety of students—from those in their first year to those in their last course, from those planning to go on to seminary to those interviewing for graduate programs in biology—spent their first week learning about American religious diversity, the basic foundations and structure of American government, and the role of religious freedom in negotiating these two social institutions. Their final “preparatory” discussion was led by Center Director Craig Wansink, whose remarks brought together the work of the Center and its relationship to Virginia Wesleyan College.

After only six class sessions, the students were ready. In remarks that were the product of a collaborative class discussion, senior Amanda Hyre addressed Mayor Paul Fraim and the Norfolk City Council, raising two issues of concern. First, she pointed out a section of the City Code that made exempt from the requirement to purchase a permit any yard sale “held exclusively on church or synagogue property,” and argued that “a place of worship of any other name—Muslim mosque, Hindu temple—would not get the benefit” and might be required “to purchase a permit to legally host a yard or garage sale on site.” Second, she pointed out that the Code’s requirement to delay until noon the start of any yard sale held on Sunday gave the appearance “of favoring one segment of one specific religious tradition: Christianity. Jews and Muslims,” noted Hyre for the class, “as well several sects of Protestant Christianity—including Seventh Day Adventists and Seventh Day Baptists—observe a day other than Sunday as a holy day.” She concluded that, “out of respect for the wide religious diversity of Norfolk’s citizens,” the class sought to “bring to your attention the garage and yard sale code and the seeming insensitivities in its current wording,” and the hope that, “by raising your awareness of them, you might consider revising the code to eliminate these issues.” Mayor Fraim and the members of City Council were quite receptive to the class’s comments, asking questions and requesting suggested changes. Within a week, in another collaborative effort, student Sabrina Lemons authored a letter to City Council with suggested changes to the municipal code. (For full text, please see Hyre statement and follow-up letter, below.)

VWC senior Amanda Hyre addresses the Norfolk City Council.Norfolk City Council member Andrew A. Protogyrou joins the students for a group photo.VWC student Rebecca Lazzeri discusses the future of Waterside with Norfolk City Manager Marcus D. Jones.

The following week, the class participated in a statewide “Day for All People” program organized by the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and attended by representatives from faith communities around the state. Meeting in Richmond, the event brought together public policy advocates and state experts in a variety of policy areas to discuss the need for changes in state law, and how to discuss the issues with elected officials. Event participants were then given the time to visit with members of the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates, whose legislative session had begun just the week before. Students in the class met with State Sen. Richard H. Stuart (VWC, ’88) of the 28th Senate district (north of Fredericksburg), and spoke with him in support of Senate Bill 816—sponsored by Sen. Janet D. Howell—that would remove from applications for an absentee ballot the need to explain the nature of a religious obligation necessitating an absentee ballot, and require only the statement that such an obligation exists. In addition to more general comments about the value of honesty and dedication in public service, Sen. Stuart spoke positively about the bill and its chances for legislative success. (As of this writing, SB 816 had passed in the Senate, 38-0.)

VWC senior Ariana Moss participating in an advocacy strategy session about the earned income tax credit.State Senator Richard Stuart (VWC ’88) with VWC students, CSRF Associate Director Kelly Jackson (fourth from left) and Prof. Eric Mazur (in rear, fourth from right)..

The very next day, the class took their message of religious freedom to the nation’s capital. Their first stop was at the headquarters of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, an organization, founded in 1936, that presents itself as the only religion-based organization devoted entirely to the protection of the right to religious freedom for all Americans (even those who profess no religion). After a tour of the offices, the students heard from BJC executive director J. Brent Walker, an ordained minister, attorney, and author of numerous amicus (“friend of the court”) briefs on a wide range of religious liberty issues, and Richard T. Foltin, the Director of National and Legislative Affairs in the Washington Office of Government and International Affairs of the American Jewish Committee which, founded in 1906, works on issues of religious liberty (often with the BJC and other religion- and secular-based organizations), in addition to other issues. These two veteran advocates discussed the value and use of coalition building, the importance of religious freedom, and the need for greater involvement by all citizens. The class then ventured up Capitol Hill for a meeting with Congressman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, who re-emphasized these points, and provided the students a brief opportunity to ask questions on a range of policy issues.

BJC Executive Director Brent Walker (far left), AJC Director of National and Legislative Affairs Richard Foltin (second from left), and BJC Education & Outreach Specialist Charles Watson, Jr. (far right) join Prof. Mazur and class.Congressman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott catching a little VWC spirit.

In a de-briefing on the last day of class, the students discussed the value of engagement in the democratic process, and acknowledged a change in opinion about the role of the advocate, particularly on such issues as religious freedom. Most of the students who had never had the opportunity to meet and speak directly with elected officials expressed confidence that, regardless of the issue in the future, they would now be much more likely to email, call, or go visit an elected official to make their voice heard.

Travel funds for the course—which was taught through the Religious Studies Department by Professor Eric Mazur, the Center’s Religion, Law, and Politics Fellow and a former Washington lobbyist with years of hands-on political experience—were graciously provided by the College and the Batten Scholar Fund.


APPENDIX #1

Statement read by Amanda Hyre to the Norfolk City Council on behalf of RELST 308
January 13, 2015

My name is Amanda Hyre. I am a senior at Virginia Wesleyan College and am currently enrolled in a class titled Lobbying and Religious Advocacy. My professor, classmates, and I are here on behalf of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom at Virginia Wesleyan College and we have come to bring forth an issue that has come to our attention, regarding yard and garage sale permits and regulations.

The “Sales and Permit Information” Web page states that a permit must be purchased in order to hold a yard sale, except when this sale is held exclusively on church or synagogue property. This statement seems problematic in that it appears discriminatory against religions other than Christianity and Judaism. The use of the phrase “church or synagogue” suggests that a place of worship of any other name—Muslim mosque, Hindu temple—would not get the benefit of this exemption and so, despite being a religious organization, would have to purchase a permit to legally host a yard or garage sale on site. Furthermore, this exemption seems to favor religious organizations over non-religious organizations that also serve the public. We propose that any non-profit organization, regardless of whether it is religiously affiliated or not, should be able to host a yard sale on site, without needing to purchase a permit.

Additionally, the Web page indicates that yard sales are not permitted to begin earlier than noon on Sundays. Given the American ideal of respecting all religions, the limitation gives the appearance of favoring one segment of one specific religious tradition: Christianity. Jews and Muslims, as well several sects of Protestant Christianity—including Seventh Day Adventists and Seventh Day Baptists—observe a day other than Sunday as a holy day.  If no such limitations exist governing the operating hours of any other commercial venture, it would seem reasonable to suggest that there should be no limitation regarding the hours during which a yard sale may occur on any day of the week.

Norfolk is a city of diversity, and that includes religious diversity. According to bestplaces.net, a significantly larger percentage of Norfolk’s population is Jewish and Muslim than the national average.  In a May 2009 article titled “Norfolk Touted as a Hot Spot for Orthodox Jews,” the Virginian-Pilot reported that this city had been identified by the Orthodox Union as a prime city for relocation for Orthodox Jews.

For these reasons, and out of respect for the wide religious diversity of Norfolk’s citizens, we bring to your attention the garage and yard sale code and the seeming insensitivities in its current wording.  We hope that by raising your awareness of them, you might consider revising the code to eliminate these issues.

Thank you very much for your time and attention.  

 


APPENDIX #2
Follow-up Letter to Norfolk City Council

Dear Mayor Fraim and esteemed members of Norfolk City Council:

On behalf of the students enrolled in “Lobbying & Religious Advocacy,” the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom, and Virginia Wesleyan College, I write to follow up on your suggestion that we submit to you language that might address the concerns we raised related to religious liberty as currently stated in the Norfolk City Code.

We suggest that the following changes be made:

1)   to Norfolk City Code, § 38-106:

Periodic yard or garage sales held exclusively on church or synagogue property owned or occupied by a non-profit organization are exempt from the requirements of this article.

2)   to Norfolk City Code, § 38-107:

No yard or garage sale shall be conducted prior to 12:00 noon on a Sunday. This provision shall not limit or prevent the display of material intended for sale

We believe that, with these changes, the Code will be expressed in more appropriate and inclusive language that addresses the issues raised by our classmate Amanda Hyre in her presentation to you on January 13, 2015. These changes simplify the language, avoid the perception of religious bias or restriction, promote inclusivity within the community, and enable charitable organizations to engage in fund-raising to further their own mandate to contribute to the good of society.

Thank you for your warm reception to our presentation, for your invitation for our continued participation, and for the time, patience, understanding, and service you provide to the people who live in (or visit) the City of Norfolk.