North Texans almost got through the Christmas season this year without public controversies about nativity scenes on courthouse lawns or other such polarizing church-state matters.
But one slipped in in the final weeks: The mayor of Flower Mound proclaimed 2014 “the Year of the Bible.”
Mayor Tom Hayden made the proclamation Dec. 16 at a Town Council meeting. It encourages “all residents in their own way to examine the principles and teachings found in the Bible.”
His decision to use the official language of proclamations and to present it at a council meeting has attracted public attention. Hayden’s action has been mentioned by outlets ranging from Fox News to the Huffington Post.
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Hayden recently declined an invitation to appear on a national news network to talk about the proclamation. “I want this to be about people reading the Bible, not about Tom Hayden,” he said.
Besides, he said, it’s no different from similar pronouncements he has made in his first year in office and is as valid as any other.
“I issue dozens of proclamations for everything under the sun.”
Is a mayor’s proclamation about “deeply held Christian beliefs,” as his proclamation says, the same thing as breast cancer awareness? And is it an official city position?
Flower Mound Town Secretary Theresa Scott said, “The town does not have established rules regarding the issuance of proclamations.”
She noted that Hayden read his proclamation from a podium facing the council during the public comment portion of the Town Council meeting, not from his mayor’s seat.
“It was determined this was an individual comment on his own, not a city action in any way,” she said.
Alix Jules, the coordinator of DFW Coalition of Reason, wrote in an email to the Star-Telegram that he objected because Hayden’s proclamation lends the legitimacy of a government entity to the choice of “one doctrine or scriptural tool over another.”
“It ignores our Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and Secular families that are also working on instilling moral values in our daily lives – without the Bible,” wrote Jules, who described himself as a former Christian. “As an atheist, I do welcome more Christians critically examining the Bible. Many in our secular community came to their stances on beliefs by doing just that.”
Closer to home, the proclamation has drawn mixed reactions, including strongly worded emails. But Hayden said the voices in his town have been overwhelmingly positive.
At least one fellow Flower Mound council member agreed. Bryan Webb said the only negative reaction he knew of was what he’d seen on Facebook.
“I’ve had a couple folks give me a call and we’ve discussed it, and their reactions have been generally positive,” Webb said.
Some comments on Hayden’s Facebook page insist that a proclamation implies that the town supports whatever it contains.
Town Manager Jimmy Stathos said, “When people hear of a proclamation, they assume that it was written by town staff and was put on a town council agenda, but that was not the case with this.”
How about other cities?
Called for comment this week, Hurst Mayor Richard Ward said the subject wasn’t appropriate for a proclamation.
“I think you’re looking for trouble signing a proclamation involving religion,” Ward said. “I know that there will be a percentage of citizens unhappy with it. They’ll ask who the mayor thinks he is.”
Euless Mayor Mary Lib Saleh said that mayoral proclamations are more than just a mayor’s thoughts.
“When we do a proclamation, all of our [council members’] names are on there,” Saleh said. “A proclamation is saying ‘this is a worthy something for the good of all people.’ ”
Fort Worth’s proclamations are issued case by case, said Jason Lamers, chief of staff for Mayor Betsy Price and the council.
“We try to accommodate as best we can, but there are some guidelines we have to follow,” said Lamers, whose office approves requests for proclamations.
The city’s website said proclamations provide “an avenue to showcase the events, programs and people that make Fort Worth one of the most livable cities in the nation.”
Lamers said he does not remember Fort Worth issuing religious proclamations, except when honoring a major event or specific contribution to the community.
‘Nothing more than goodwill’
Allan Saxe, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, said that proclamations have no force of law.
“Cities all the time make proclamations like ‘Allan Saxe Day’ but they mean nothing more than goodwill,” Saxe said. “If I was mayor, I would have a proclamation every day — ‘Global Warming Day,’ ‘Be Kind to Animals Day.’ Most people do not even know of proclamations.”
Mark Sherrill, chairman of the Baha’i Faith in Flower Mound, was in the audience when Hayden read the proclamation and said he was not bothered by it.
“He is not trying to evangelize Flower Mound, but it was something he felt compelled to do as a Christian and so I have no problem with it in that regard,” Sherrill said. “I don’t feel like it is provocative in any way or that he was trying to preach to the community.”
Likewise, Tarrant County Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani, a Muslim, said that Hayden’s Year of the Bible proclamation “doesn’t change anything and doesn’t diminish me in any fashion. Whether he’s right to do it is way outside my ball game. It’s a great idea. Every Christian should read the Bible and every Muslim should read the Quran.”
Support from ministers
Hayden, an investment officer, was elected to the council in 2009 and became mayor in May 2012, upsetting incumbent Melissa Northern with 64.5 percent of 5,734 votes cast.
He said he made the Year of the Bible proclamation on his own authority because “as long as I’m a duly elected mayor, you can’t separate the two.”
He pointed to a similar proclamation by President Ronald Reagan on Feb. 3, 1983.
“When President Ronald Reagan did this [ Presidential Proclamation] it was formal, and the Senate and House both passed resolutions supporting it,” Hayden said.
Hayden’s proclamation cites presidents and other civic leaders for promoting knowledge of the Bible. It encourages “all residents in their own way to examine the principles and teachings found in the Bible.”
Hayden said he had been thinking about the proclamation for two years. A few months ago, he gathered ministers and other representatives of 25 Flower Mound churches to find out what they thought of the idea.
“Almost all were supportive,” Hayden said. “One of the pastors volunteered to establish a website.”
The site does more than just make the Bible available online, it also coordinates the verses so readers can discuss specific scriptures, Bell said.
“It’s a place where people can come and the portion of the Bible we’re reading that day will be available,” Bell said. “What’s happening is, people are texting sections of the scripture back and forth saying, ‘What was that all about?’ or ‘This is exactly what I’m going through.’ ”
Getting people not only to read, but also to talk about scripture was a goal, Hayden said.
“Another reason I did this is, I want people to feel comfortable in my town talking about the Bible and Christ,” Hayden said.
“I want them to feel that it’s OK to have discussions about religion.”
Columnist Bud Kennedy and staff writers Caty Hirst, Diane Smith and Monica Nagy contributed to this report.