by Maggie Dolan
Question: When is a Congressman’s “Town Hall” not really a Town Hall?
Answer: When it is held in the auditorium of a house of worship on private property.
Freedom Caucus Member Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA-7) hosted his second Town Hall of 2017 on May 9, 2017 at the Clover Hill Assembly of God in Chesterfield County, Virginia, the home church of his co-host for the event, state Senator Amanda Chase. Well known to the national and international media for his January 2017 remarks, “the WOMEN are in my grill…to hold a Town Hall”, Brat’s only previous Town Hall in 2017 was held in a tiny restaurant in Blackstone, VA, a remote rural area of his district at which signs and posters were forbidden and questions had to be submitted on note cards, provided at the event, to a moderator who then selected which ones Brat would be asked. Brat followed up with two “pop up” town hall meetings: one at a small tire shop and the other at another small restaurant- “pop up” because he only gave 24 hours’ notice of the events and held them on weekdays in the middle of the week at times when most of his constituents would be at work.
Following the Blackstone event, the Virginia ACLU notified Brat in writing that forbidding signs and posters at his Town Hall events was a violation of his constituents’ Constitutional rights to free speech.
Immediately following the House of Representatives’ narrow passage of the AHCA bill on May 4, 2017, Brat announced by email that a Town Hall for his district which would be held during the ten-day House recess. The email laid out the rules:
1.) admission would be by ticket only. A limited number of free tickets would be available online. No person without a ticket would be permitted inside the Town Hall. The Town Hall would start at 7 PM with ticket holders admitted beginning at 6:30 PM. A wait list was available for those unable to confirm a ticket. Wait list individuals would be admitted at 6:55 PM if space was available.
2.) “In order to facilitate a meeting where everyone can have an unobstructed view, and where we do not leave litter behind in the facility; no signs, placards, banners, or flyers will be permitted in the meeting.” No information was given as to the total number of tickets available, the number allocated in advance to Brat supporters, or the number allocated to Sen. Chase and her supporters.
Tickets were seized quickly once announced. Those trying to obtain one after 30 minutes, were told the event was sold out and they could sign up for the wait list. On the afternoon of the event, however, a second Brat email went out which said,” All tickets available for the event are accounted for at this time. We do not anticipate granting entrance to anyone who is not holding a ticket that is in their name (we will be checking photo ID at the door). And because it is private property and on-site parking is limited, no one will be admitted to the parking lot without a ticket.” The Virginia ACLU was notified and promptly sent another letter to Brat sternly reminding him that prohibiting signs, posters and banners at his public Town Hall event would be considered a First Amendment violation.
With two public schools available across the street and dozens more in his district, the decision to hold the event in a private property church was a strategic one on Brat’s part.
It allowed him to skirt the Virginia ACLU’s earlier warnings about free speech infringement. As private property owners, the church leadership would be free to set the rules regarding admission, denying admission and presence of signs, banners, flyers and posters on their property. Additionally, the church owners could, and did, have armed Chesterfield County police posted at the driveway entrance checking for tickets, at the church doors, and inside the church turning aside anyone with a sign, poster or banner, forcing them to go to a sidewalk across the country road.
Ticket holders lined up at the church doors beginning at 5:45 PM and were individually checked to make sure their photo ID exactly matched the name on the ticket. No wait-listed individuals were admitted at 6:55PM. Instead these individuals were denied entrance and ordered to exit church grounds. The church doors were then closed and guarded by armed Chesterfield County police. Inside the church, estimates of the crowd were 400-500 people, but livestreaming video showed rows and rows of empty seats even 20 minutes after the meeting had begun.
Hearing of the empty seats from their friends inside, some people from across the road approached the church doors asking to be admitted since seating was available. Police officers politely but firmly said no and escorted them back across the road.
Reporters from most local, national and international media covered the event. These journalists, whose first mission is to investigate and inform the public, duly noted the crowd size and tone. Click bait adjectives “rowdy”, “raucous”, “unruly”, “booing”, “jeering”, “interrupting” were widely used, Although the press is currently under attack by this administration and a journalist in West Virginia was arrested that same afternoon for asking a question of HHS Tom Price, the First Amendment, did not seem to be on any of the reporter’s radar.
No one from the media commented on the implications of holding a meeting as a civic voice for constituents in a house of worship, Christian worship at that, given that other venues were readily available.
The crowd of people across the street, numbering over 100 individuals, staged a Die In. One outraged would-be-participant made a video of the group of people gathered there, expressing their frustrations and clearly stating the First Amendment violations that were being perpetuated by Brat and Chase and being ignored by the media.
When the Town Hall began with a Christian prayer offered by the church pastor, members of the audience held up red pieces of paper to show their disapproval of this. Throughout the 90- minute meeting, which dealt primarily with attendees’ objections to the recently passed healthcare bill, Sen. Chase repeatedly scolded the crowd for their boisterousness, at one point standing up and shouting, “This is MY Town Hall now…so sit down.” and threatened to remove noisy people from the building. She ordered the armed police officers to the center aisle to implement this. The police didn’t remove anyone. Brat reminded the crowd, as he does multiple times in every meeting, that he is an economist and that he went to seminary. (Brat’s economic theory is based on his Calvinist beliefs.) He returned to his favorite themes of the Judeo-Christian foundations of our country and health care as a predictable free market commodity. When a questioner said that health care is a human right, Brat countered the question with, “.”I don’t think y’all want the separation of church and state (…) In the west rights come from God”. In a press interview immediately following the event, Brat was asked how excited he was about the bill, he replied, “I’m a Calvinist,” he said. “I’m the frozen chosen. I’m an economist. So, it’s like—excitement? Whatever.” He also added, “I don’t think people get that excited on policy in general,”
Chase added that it is the responsibility of the church, not the government to protect the poor, needy and vulnerable. “If a person needs help they should join a church.”
Historically, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (both of whom Brat quotes frequently when it suits his purpose) disagreed on several issues in their writings, but on one thing they were both clear: separation of church from government is essential and must be preserved. Madison wrote:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
They were so committed to this belief that they enshrined it as the First Amendment to the newly-written Constitution of the fledgling nation. All other rights which they listed in the following nine Amendments known as the Bill of Rights, come secondary to these First Amendment rights.
Choosing a church as venue for the Town Hall was a calculated move by Dave Brat to infringe upon the First Amendment rights of those who wished to attend.
It was the critical first decision from which all other decisions for the event could legally follow, like toppling dominos. Because of that first choice by Brat, the subsequent decisions by the church leaders could not be disputed. Hence, as private property owners, the church leaders were within their rights to restrict attendance and deny wait-listed individuals from entry to a public Town Hall event. They were also within their rights to prohibit signs, banners, flyers and posters on their property and require that the audience submit questions on note cards instead of verbally to Brat.
Why would a Congressman host a Town Hall meeting in a church when multiple other public venues were available? Was his intention really to listen to his constituents’ concerns as their elected representative and to respond to them? What happened that night, and in the emails from Brat’s office leading up to it, was a clear and intentional assault upon the principle of separation of church and state on which our country is founded and the accompanying First Amendment rights to Free Speech and Free Assembly.
Dave Brat imposed his personal Christian beliefs on his constituents and allowed that belief system to control and exclude them, hoping no one would notice or call him on it.
In the current administration, we have become increasingly dependent on a free press to provide accurate information and analysis of a rapidly changing and fearfully-confusing time for our nation. It’s not uncommon for politicians to give talks to church congregations. In some Congressional districts, Town Halls are held in churches because the church is the largest space for public gathering, but that’s not the case in Brat’s district and certainly not in Chesterfield County. The fact then that no one in the media recognized this as a violation and sounded an alarm is especially worrisome. Perhaps if the co-host had been a non-Christian and had held the event in a non-Christian house of worship and had begun it with a non-Christian prayer, the flagrant violation would have been more apparent and noted.
Brat has greased a slippery slope. His deliberate decision to use a house of worship instead of a nondenominational venue for a civic event is not an inconsequential occurrence but rather a skillful ploy to “manage” his constituents into a situation that is less threatening to himself, but very threatening to their constitutional rights. It is an act of insidious guerrilla warfare on our most important constitutional rights. Failure to respond to his actions with strenuous public and media objections will “normalize” this abnormal, unacceptable and unconstitutional action and set precedent for further encroachment. If we don’t seize this opportunity to make our voices heard loudly, clearly and to multiple audiences, this experience will not be the last time Dave Brat or other elected officials employ this method to control and exclude their constituents