I think that the Ann Arbor City Council has collectively lost their minds. At the Tuesday September 8, 2015 council meeting¹ they considered and affirmed a resolution that mixes religion into our local politics. The whole thing has me ticked off to no end.
When reading over the agenda for the council meeting , I saw this item “Resolution to Declare Ann Arbor a Compassionate City”. I thought nothing of it…after all we and others do declare our city many things all the time. We win “best of” titles easily. I thought it was nothing meaningful until I saw a Councilmember’s newsletter describing the upcoming issues at the council meeting. In this newsletter there was a link to the Charter of Compassion which is a religious group is trying to teach morality to other religious groups. The Charter for Compassion wants to partner with the city to teach compassion to the community. I was stunned. I asked myself, “How can this be an item on our city council agenda? In Ann Arbor? So I dug deeper. First the background.
The resolution that was submitted for consideration is this:
Here is a link to the Charter for Compassion website.
Here is the attached document that was referred to in the resolution.
I have so many issues with these 3 documents that it is hard for me to begin. Lets begin with simple explanations of how I view each item and why I think the city partnering with this group is wrong.
Religious Freedom Act of Ann Arbor?
First off, the resolution is poorly written and can be read in many different contexts. The third whereas clause sure reads as if you are recognizing that personal religious views should be recognized (considered?) when making public policies.
Whereas, We believe that we can become more effective in dealing with these issues by intentionally creating a community wide context of compassion, as described in the attached “Charter For Compassion”, calling for meaningful activation of fair, just and caring principles relating to public policies and private actions on the part of all people while recognizing their religious, ideological, social and national differences;
Really? That can’t be what the author intended. I sure hope not.
Many states have passed religious freedom bills over the years such as the very controversial bills in Indiana and Arkansas along with our own State of Michigan passing a Religious Freedom adoption law. These religious freedom bills are used to discriminate against any group that a particular religion does not like, but typically against the LGBT community. I never would have imagined that Ann Arbor, MI would pass such a resolution. We are supposed to be a liberal town. We are supposed to be the 25 square miles surrounded by reality. But now this? Language passed in this resolution that can be easily skewed by some to defend their religious discriminatory actions is now in place.
Public policy has no business in recognizing religious differences because religion should play no part in government or in policy making. This completely offends me that this phrase is included. Our constitution specifies a separation of church and state.
Yes, I know, I know…..President Bush started the faith based initiative program during his presidency where the government gives public finds to religious organizations to provide social services.
(I don’t think it’s constitutional, but the program is there and President Obama has done little to change that. There is a very real criticism of the program in that these religious organizations might lecture or preach religion while performing the governmental contracted services.)
But this is not that.
Faith based initiative organizations are given grants to perform services that the government was already performing. In a way the government is just contracting out the service that are already in their purview. The Charter for Compassion is based on an objective set forth by the Charter for Compassion organization which is n0t in the purview of government.
The charter of compassion is chock full of feel good language. It wants to to restore compassion to the center of morality and religion. Karen Armstrong along with a group of leading inspirational thinkers from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and based on the fundamental principles of universal justice and respect created this concept. She thinks that every religion has a history of intolerance ( I think that too) but now wants to show people the compassionate side of religion.
That’s all well and good, but that is not the role of government to side with a “good” religion over a “bad” religion’. It’s not the role of government to teach compassion or morality, its role is to make and enforce laws (including anti-discrimination laws).
It is actually the role of society to enforce proper conduct and morality. Notice that I did not say that is the role of religion; religion is biased and controlling. Society enforces what is acceptable behavior at a given time in history and is ever changing as ideas and views change. Although I like the Charter for Compassion campaign in theory and what it stands for, government should not take part in encouraging or implementing it. This is the United States of America were we have separation of church and state. And by all accounts this organization is a religion, albeit a mix of many mainstream religions, but still a religion nonetheless.
This is a great community initiative; just not one the local government should be involved in.
But on the other hand, as I read through the details on the website, this initiative appears to be some kind of cross section of a religion, club, motivational self help coach and pyramid scheme all rolled into one. The Charter for Compassion pushes workshops and lectures and has books for specific readings on the topics available for purchase. It encourages the signing up of “partners” and joining a global community.
Maybe it’s just me but this sure a lot like some sort of religious sect or cult for lack of a better word. Scientology anyone? Or maybe it’s more like a Tony Robbins motivational group (who I am a big fan of by the way). I don’t know, it just seems so……mind controlling to me.
Maybe I am being too harsh. You read through the website and see if you get the same vibe.
The Compassionate Communities proposal that was handed into council
The proposal starts out with reference to the displaced homeless camps earlier in the year and tries to link that to compassion. They go on to describe why compassion is important and that they want to increase community awareness to realize a compassionate society. They say:
We must consider an extension to the Golden Rule such as; treat others the way both
you and they want to be treated, and influence social systems to treat all people as
they want to be treated, with fairness, justice and care.
All well and good.
Again I say…This is a great community initiative; just not one the local government should be involved in.
They go on to say that they want to partner with the CompassionLab at the Ross School of Business at the U of M to help them measure actual impacts of various strategies they will use to teach compassion.
Again no problem. Academics study religions and these topics all the time.
The problem is their goal in this proposal.
The goal of this phase of the initiative will be the adoption of resolutions presented to the City Councils of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and to the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners to affirm the Charter for Compassion and to commit to help develop and implement a plan to increase levels of empathy and compassion in the respective communities.
So now we have a big problem. This religion wants the city to dedicate resources for their cause. Will this be funding, staff time, or maybe simply advertising? All are unacceptable in my eyes.
What is more disconcerting is Appendix B which lays out the details in what the Charter for Compassion group wants to do. They want Ann arbor, Ypsilanti and Washtenaw county to pass a resolution declaring the cities and county to be to be “just and compassionate communities”. They don’t mean “just and compassionate’ as in the simple definition of the words. They mean pass a resolution declaring that we are a partner with them in their religious cause.
Some of you might say that declaring our city “compassionate” is good and words are important. I agree wholeheartedly that it is good for people and our government to be compassionate. But we are not simply labeling our city “compassionate” in this resolution as described in their proposal. We are joining in with their proselytizing.
Workshops will be developed for the general public along with community book reads to teach the community about compassion. Will the local governments advertise or sanction these events without knowing any of the material that might be presented? Will the local governments participate and force their employees to take these classes?
My problem with this
Some of you might still say, ‘So what? Compassion is good no matter how it is presented. This is a good cause.’
But we have separation of church and state in this country. A separation of church and state that is there to protect freedom of religion for all of is citizens so that the government does not impose a religion upon us…even if that religion is considered good for us. Whose to say what is “good” religion or “bad” religion. The government should not choose a religion to partner with for a community project that is not in their purview. Period. All religions should be equal and separate in the governments eyes. No one religion should take precedent over another because religion is supposed to be irrelevant to government policy.
Yes, compassion is good.
Yes, compassion should be and actually is a part of government and politics (especially democratic ideology, teaparty and republican ideology eh…maybe not so much).
Yes, compassion is part of most religions.
Yes, compassion can bring about a better society.
But those statements do not necessarily correlate, meaning that politics should justifiably partner with religion to obtain a better world.
Look I am not against religion or this sort of a initiative. I like the concept of changing the world. I just think it should be community based, not partnered with government.
This is a great community initiative; just not one the local government should be involved in.
So how did we get here?
So exactly how did this get on the agenda for the Ann Arbor City Council? Well it turns out that one of the sponsors of the resolution is Councilmember Chuck Warpehoski. CM Warpehoski is the Director for the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice (“ICPJ”) which is the local lead in this Charter for Compassion initiative. Conflict of interest (COI) anyone? Is CM Warpehoski using his council seat to further his professional goals?
COI usually occurs when their is a financial interest involved for the person, and many people will say that since CM Warpehoski did not get paid directly for this initiative then there is no COI. I beg to differ. Of course there is a financial interest involved. His salary is based on his job performance. There can be undue influence. Passing of the Charter of Compassion resolution is a goal of his workplace and therefore will result in a better job performance and potential salary increases.
I was stunned that Mayor Taylor, the City Administrator, or the City Attorney did not pick up this. This resolution should never have hit the agenda. If they truly think that this is not a conflict of interest then our COI policy needs to be updated. We have had Councilmemebrs recuse themselves from votes for far less. Most recently for having a membership to the Ann Arbor Racquet Club that was disputing sidewalks in their development plan. If we had a councilmember who worked as…say… an admin assistant for a building developer in town, would we allow that CM to vote on the project? I think not.
As an aside: Working at the University of Michigan does not necessarily imply COI whenever the U-M has an issue before council. The U-M is completely decentralized to the point that each departments runs differently than the others. Hiring,firing, performance reviews budgets are all separate. The university is similar to an office park of ‘small companies’ just sharing space. There is no centralized administration for managing 25,000 employees so there really is no undue influence when the university has business with the city, unless of course it is their department that is presenting to council.
COI was discussed a little bit at the council meeting, but not with the vigor that the council usually has with this issue. It sort of surprised me that most councilmembers were actually …..nice about the COI. The church and state issue was discussed but not to the extent that I think was necessary. Others asked what the purpose was and how much this would cost the city. CM Warpehowski implied that it was just symbolic and there would be no city resources used (he added a ‘for now’ at the end of the sentence but I will ignore that …for now). I think many on council may have drank the friendship Kool-Aid and never even read through the documents to see what this was about and took the symbolism at face value.
In the end, council removed the last resolved clause from the resolution before passing it, but they whereas clause that speaks to recognizing religious differences is still in there.
RESOLVED, That the city of Ann Arbor will be open to working with other regional units of government and with coalitions of non-governmental groups toward the development and implementation of a program for action to pursue the goals of the Charter for Compassion in our community.
Also, the first resolved clause declaring us a compassionate city while affirming the goals of the charter for compassion is still in there. The resolution was watered down, but it is still exist and has been passed unanimously much to my chagrin. And now we will have the city of Ypsilanti and the Washtenaw County Commission considering it soon. I hope they are smart enough to not consider the resolution at all.
While again I applaud the concept of social justice and compassion, it gives me pause when this organization (Charter for Compassion or ICPJ) purposely tries to access our government using a councilmember. There are many communities around the country who have signed on and affirmed the Charter of Compassion, but community does not imply government. Yes, there are some local municipalities who have signed on, but from what I can find on the internet, the local governments were very vague in their resolutions by, for example, declaring a Day of Compassion. Although I did not look them all up so I really can’t say what other local governments may or may not have done. Our resolution went too far with asking for help with implementation. This sort of movement belongs in the community and not in a city council.
Why I am so bothered
Every day I turn on the news and their is another news story about how a religious group or person is trying to impose their version of morality on me. Although, you may think this has nothing to do with religion, the international group is run by a minister and is based on religion. You may think this is a good thing, but many of us (women) whose rights are being threatened on a daily basis in the cause of morality and religion may not think this is so simple. The crazy Kentucky clerk who is refusing to issue marriage licenses in the name of morality is not a good thing. She is the government, and the government should not be preaching morality but should instead be following the laws.
I realize that the country has gotten more conservative and almost seems more religious at times, while Ann Arbor has always been an oasis. An oasis of liberal ideals that appear to be more open to secular viewpoints and ideals. For those who know me well, you know that I am all about wanting to change the world and make it a better place, but I do that from a place of secularism. And compassion is a part of it. I want the world to be better because it should be better and can be better. Not because a religion tells you what is right and what to believe. In my opinion, if you need an organized religion to tell you what is moral and how to act then you aren’t really a moral person. You should know what is moral from what values you hold as a person, inside yourself.
Can compassion be taught or is it innate? I don’t know. Maybe compassion is similar to the age old question ‘are leaders born or made?’ and we will never know. What I do know is that teaching compassion is not under the purview of government.
I am very unhappy that this got slid by without anyone paying attention, without a public hearing, and without any news coverage beforehand.. This initiative can be accomplished without government, so I don’t understand why the ICPJ and the Charter for Compassion group went this route. My hope is that Ypsilanti City Council and the Washtenaw County Commission pays attention and nips this in the bud before it goes any further.
People say that Ann Arbor is 25 square miles surrounded by reality.
I want my 25 square miles of secular bliss back.
¹Ryan Stanton, “City Council officially declares Ann Arbor a compassionate community.” Mlive.com, September 9,2015.