El Dorado County Board of Supervisors walks back American Christian Heritage Month declaration

The El Dorado County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Tuesday to rescind its controversial American Christian Heritage Month designation for the month of July.

Supervisor John Hidahl, whose district encompasses El Dorado Hills and who initially brought the proclamation to the board on July 18, brought the motion to rescind Tuesday morning.

“The intent of the proclamation was to recognize the importance of some of our religious heritage associated with July 4, 1776,” he said. But despite his good intentions, he said, the threat of litigation and public response caused him to walk the proclamation back.

“The intent wasn’t accomplished, and when that doesn’t happen, electeds have a responsibility to reconsider.”

Three fellow board members approved Hidahl’s proclamation in July, and Lori Parlin, whose district covers Shingle Springs and Coloma, was the sole dissenter. All voted in support of the rescission Tuesday morning.

Brooke Lane, who represents Pollock Pines and South Lake Tahoe, said the board “clearly crossed” the line separating church and state.

“There’s a reason why we separate our religions and the work we do in leading our communities,” Lane said. “My not understanding the depth of that (in July) was my mistake.”

She and board chair Wendy Thomas, who represents Placerville and Camino, both credited Hidahl for rescinding his own proclamation.

“The learning opportunity of the moment is that, as elected representatives, this role is not about any one of us individually,” Thomas said. “It’s about staying true to our core function of providing essential services to the residents of El Dorado County.”

Many El Dorado County residents spoke out against the proclamation at the July meeting, saying it doesn’t represent the county’s diversity, and that it blurs the lines between church and state. Those same residents were pleased with Hidahl’s proposed rescission.

Leo Bennett-Cauchon, an activist from Shingle Springs who identified as Catholic, thanked Supervisor Hidahl for walking the proposal back.

“Whatever the vote is, to bring it back, to have the conversation, is wonderful,” Bennett-Cauchon said.

Rabbi Evon Yakar, from South Lake Tahoe, said he was “disheartened to see this proclamation” back in July.

“I felt that my seat at the table at this county was removed from me,” he told the board Tuesday. He felt that it “undermined the 10 years of service that I’ve given to this county,” but looks forward to working with the board in the future to create a more inclusive, interfaith culture.

“It’s not anti-Christian” to rescind the proclamation, said Ruth Michaelson, an El Dorado County resident. “Practice (religion) in your church, practice in your home, that’s great. This is about the government doing something that I think the government should stay away from.”

A small number of supporters showed their support of the proclamation also.

Kelly Nalewaja, who serves as secretary for the El Dorado County GOP, said there “is nothing unconstitutional about recognizing the Christian heritage that helped form this country.”

She called the rescission “discrimination.”

The proclamation also made waves outside of El Dorado County, and elicited a strong response from civil rights groups.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation, a legal advocacy nonprofit that supports the separation of church and state, sent a letter to board members to tell them they’d received multiple complaints about the designation, and explain why it ought to be rescinded.

“This proclamation is a clear breach of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,” wrote Freedom from Religion Foundation staff attorney Chris Line in the July 28 letter.

“By issuing this proclamation advancing Christian nationalism and the debunked myth that we are a Christian nation, El Dorado County is ironically violating the country’s true heritage of religious liberty based on a secular government ... FFRF asks that you rescind the ‘American Christian History Month’ proclamation and refrain from issuing similar proclamations in the future.”

Board members never responded to the Freedom from Religion Foundation letter, Line told The Sacramento Bee on Monday, but that Hidahl’s recommended to walk back the proclamation is “the best case scenario.”

“Most of our victories are just informing people of the law,” Line said. “The best case scenario here is the supervisor seeing the error of his ways. Hopefully this will serve as an example to other counties that might consider this.”

ACLU: Proclamation violated state Constitution

The American Civil Liberties Union also wrote to the El Dorado County board, in August.

“We are concerned that the Resolution conveys that the County supports, promotes and endorses specific religious beliefs and, as such, violates the California Constitution,” the civil rights group wrote.

“Our state Constitution protects the rights of individuals to practice and promote their religion as they see fit and, at the same time, prevents the government from promoting a specific religion or religion in general.”

El Dorado County Counsel David Livingston responded to the ACLU last week, informing the civil rights group that the board would be voting to rescind the designation.

“In light of the community’s concerns and the unintended effect of the Proclamation, the Board of Supervisors intends to consider rescission of the Proclamation,” Livingston wrote.

“It’s pretty simple,” Hidahl told The Bee on Monday evening.

“Proclamations in El Dorado County are meant to be ceremonial and celebrational (sic) ... when anything that is meant to be strictly ceremonial or celebrational creates more divisiveness within our communities in El Dorado County, then it’s appropriate to remove it.”