NEBRASKA CITY – Richard Bristol came before the Nebraska City City Council on Monday to ask city commissioners to make a resolution or ordinance protecting the rights of all citizens to practice their religion without any hindrance.
In his 20-minute plea, Bristol cited several U.S. Supreme Court cases upholding the rights of citizens, public employees, and public municipalities to express religious views.
Bristol, a rabbi and member of the Nebraska City Ministerial Association, said the utilities received a complaint after receiving a flier in their utility bill.
Bristol: “I became concerned when I heard there was a complaint against out Ministerial Association of Nebraska City, for their flier they put in the utility bills. That they would dare to mention the name of God and put a bible quote within it. Asking people to help support them as they support those who can not pay their utility bills. It perked my ears up because I have seen it across the nation from what’s called new atheism, where I’m not only concerned about you not giving me your views but I’m going to make certain you’re not allowed to have your views yourself. That people who have a strong faith back ground have to keep their mouths shut.
“That somebody would make a complaint that the ministerial association, of all things, should have a flier asking for funds because their helping people pay their bills, but they can’t use the word God and they can’t reference the Bible. That is the foundation of why they are doing what they are doing.”
The flier was an annual mailing put forth from the Nebraska City Ministerial Energy Assistance Program but mailed by the Nebraska City Utilities Office.
The anonymous complainant was concerned with having received a flier with religious views sent to them from a city office. The flier in question referred to God three times and also included a bible verse. Jeff Kohrs, General Manager of the Nebraska City Utilities spoke to the commissioners about the complaint and the stance that the utilities office has taken.
Kohrs: “This year, I think there was a reference to God. And I believe that raised a citizen’s concern, referencing that. What we had asked is, for future, that just be removed and we would still have the program there and that’s where it stood at that point.”
City Attorney David Partsch shared that there is a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court case where the courts upheld the rights of a town in New York to open their council meetings with prayer.
Mayor, Bryan Bequette responded to the request by saying “ I have not heard of a separation of state or a freedom of religion issue in Nebraska City, in the years that I have been here. To date, I have always relied upon the first amendment to the constitution to cover us and as well the state constitution and 1.4 covers us as well in the state constitution.
I have never felt threatened at being able to express my religious views in Nebraska City. My fear is that we draft an ordinance, we now dilute two constitutions. Though we have possibly the right to, I have not felt a problem with it.”
Mayor Bequette went on to further state that his fear is that by drafting an ordinance to protect religious freedom that it would instead be inviting more attacks. He did ask that the city attorney investigate whether other cities in Nebraska have drafted similar ordinances.
As of the November mailing, the energy assistance program has helped 1586 families since it began in 2006. All of the expense to produce the fliers is paid for by the Ministerial Association, and these fliers are the main source of funding for the nonprofit, volunteer driven program.