By Paul Kruze
A Special Report for East County Magazine
February 26, 2013 (El Cajon)--The City of El Cajon may once again be walking down a rocky road of church and state separation issues with the announced participation of the El Cajon Police and Fire Departments as “special guests” at the groundbreaking of Rock Church’s newest location on Saturday, March 9 near Parkway Plaza on Jackman street. The invitation also includes “prayer and worship” at the newly-leased space.
Several years ago, the City of El Cajon came under heavy fire for airing religious videos produced by Wallbuilders, an Evangelical-backed group dedicated to “educating the nation concerned with the Godly foundation for our country” on the City’s government cable access channel. The City paid nearly $20,000 to air the videos over four years. The videos were eventually removed from the government access cable TV channel after a local watchdog group, challenged the constitutionality and former City Manager Kathy Henry found the videos inappropriate.
According to City of El Cajon Deputy City Manager, Nancy Palm, officials of both the police and department have received and accepted invitations to appear at the groundbreaking. She dismissed assertions that the City of El Cajon was showing any favoritism by the official appearance saying that the city regularly accepts invitations for appearances “whether it is a groundbreaking at a new apartment complex or a church.”
The Rock Church website and flyer make clear that the intent of the event goes beyond mere groundbreaking activities and have a clear religious message.
“Join us for worship,” the flyer states, adding, “You’ll find out more about how to get involved here and the steps you can take to be a part of transforming lives through the love of Jesus.” Immediately below this statement, special guests are listed including the El Cajon Police Department, El Cajon Fire Department, Luv em up Ministry, and more.
The Rock Church was started in 2000 by Pastor Miles McPherson, a former NFL football player, and has locations in Point Loma at Liberty Station and in North San Diego County at San Marcos. The church claims to have over 16,000 members who attends its weekly services in person and online. It will occupy nearly 20,000 square feet of space, including two office suites adjacent to the new worship center in El Cajon in the space formerly occupied by the Michael’s arts and crafts.
Pastor McPherson has been a leading advocate of Proposition 8, which, by voter approval, led to the banning of same-sex marriage in the state of California.
Asked whether some citizens might believe that an official appearance at a church groundbreaking might be looked by some as an official government endorsement of a particular religion, Palm said, “That’s splitting hairs. Our citizens are more concerned about other and bigger issues than something like that.”
When asked if the city would request its name be removed from Rock Church’s website page announcing the city’s participation as a “special guest,” Palm said it would be “too hard” for The Rock Church to make the change on its website or withdraw any written invitations. East County Magazine made several requests to The Rock Church and the City of El Cajon for a list of city officials invited to the event and those who had actually accepted the invitation, but did not receive a response by press deadline.
Mei Ling Starkey, Rock Church’s Public Relations Manager, said that the religious organization makes a point to regularly interface with government officials including city council members. “We want to be an active part of the community,” she said. “That includes beautification projects, participating in library reading programs. We’ve done this in the past with projects in Balboa Park and throughout the City of San Diego.” Starkey said The Rock Church does not expect anything in return from those relationships.
In a statement later issued to East County Magazine, Starkey said, in part, “We have invited officials and community leaders to join us at this event, which is consistent with ground breakings conducted throughout the region. The Rock Church has not sought, nor will it ever seek special favors and an invite to the ground breaking is not intended to curry favor with anyone. The City has reviewed and processed our applications and permits as they have for any other person who walks into their offices. The ground breaking is an open community event.”
El Cajon community activist Ray Lutz, whose Citizens Oversight Project challenged the City of El Cajon over its airing of the videos by Texas-based charismatic evangelist David Barton on its government access channel, is skeptical of the city’s official participation at the groundbreaking.
“This is yet another example of retail space being used for a tax-exempt (but usually highly profitable) church, with no tax revenue going to the city. The Police and firefighters should not be endorsing this with their presence at the church, regardless of what is on the website. They are always complaining about not enough money for first-responders and now they are endorsing the use of retail space for a nonprofit? This is mind-boggling,” he said.
Lutz further questioned the official appearance of city officials at the Christian church event, saying that police officers and firefighters of different faiths might be uncomfortable with the official participation at an event seemingly endorsing one religion over others. “What about the Jews, Muslims, and atheists who might be members of these departments?” he said.
Rob Boston, a senior policy analyst for American United, a Washington DC-based advocacy group whose focus lies in separation of church and state issues, says El Cajon public officials need to understand that one of the dangers of getting too close to a church such as The Rock Church is that they could be perceived as endorsing its political agenda as well as its theology.
He also said that Pastor McPherson’s active involvement in promoting the voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage and subsequent court rulings overturning the measure could become an eventual troublesome issue for El Cajon city officials.
“Municipal officials can as private citizens can attend any religious service they like. But they need to be very careful about official capacities creating the appearance of any special relationship with any house of worship. Government has an obligation to treat all houses of worship equally. They have to be neutral in matters of theology. In this case, I would recommend police officers and firefighters not attend this event in uniform.”
Boston continued to say that any time there is an encroachment on separation of church of state, citizens should be concerned. “One of the great visions of our founding fathers was that we would have a secular government. That does not mean that government be hostile to religion or work against it. It means the state doesn’t take a stand on matters of theology or side with one church or another. The only way that government can serve all citizens is when it stays away from matters of theology.”