*%$# bless America

When a Sparks city employee cut the word “God” out of patriotic signs, all hell broke loose

One of Sparks Mayor Tony Armstrong’s new signs is displayed in a planter in the lobby of Sparks City Hall.

One of Sparks Mayor Tony Armstrong’s new signs is displayed in a planter in the lobby of Sparks City Hall.

Photo By David Robert

Before the flood of e-mail and at least one foul-mouthed postcard, before the mayor of Sparks was hailed as a hero on Christian radio stations across the nation, before a complaint of a possible violation of Nevada’s Open Meeting Law was filed, on a bright summer day, City Attorney Chet Adams took note of a sign in a planter outside Sparks City Hall.

He’d seen the “God Bless America” signs floating around for more than a year. After Sept. 11, 2001, a city employee went to Albertson’s and obtained several religiously patriotic signs and banners to hang up around City Hall.

One of the remaining signs must have been moved outside to a planter, and it just happened to catch Adams’ attention that day in June, around the time of the city elections. Adams just happened to go inside and make an off-handed remark to fellow city employees.

“I was just shooting the breeze,” he says, “not handing down a directive from the City Attorney’s Office. … I was in a great mood, feeling good. I went in and talked to the people in [the] revenue [division]. I said, ‘You know, I saw that sign out there, and I know you guys aren’t going to believe this, but the federal courts have gone so far as to say that, as a municipality, displaying the word ‘God’ on city property [can be construed as a religious endorsement]. The city could be sued under the establishment clause—or the separation clause.’ “

His co-workers were stunned.

“These guys said, ‘You’re kidding. That’s nuts. That’s ridiculous. Should we take it down?’ “

Adams was noncommittal: “I just read the law. I don’t make it. … I’m not an authority. It’s just my opinion.”

Later, a city employee took the advice to heart and went around the building cutting the word “God” from signs so that they merely read, “Bless America.” This offended a clerk. The signs were taken down and collected—minus one. And it was that missed sign that a Sparks resident noticed when coming in to pay a sewer bill.

The resident called newspapers in Sparks and Reno.

“She wanted to know who was blessing America,” Adams says. A reporter called Adams. His remark made news reports from coast to coast: “I jokingly made the comment that anybody can bless America, and the Associated Press picked that up in its story.”

Due to a reporting error, Adams came to be known as the religiously hostile lawyer who ordered “God” cut out of signs.

That was last month, but angry calls and letters haven’t ceased. A postcard from Las Vegas came addressed to “Commie City Attorney Anti-American Chet Adams.” The postcard’s God-fearing writer informed the city attorney that he was a “little weasel piece of shit commie who doesn’t have the fuckin’ balls to stand up for anything.

“We should take pieces of dog shit like you and put you in the front line in Iraq. Do you think you would pray to God then?”

Many were incensed after hearing the story on religious radio stations that, Adams says, often use “literary license” when paraphrasing the story.

“The whole story’s been convoluted,” he says. “Out of that fairly innocuous conversation comes the wrath of many.”

The newspaper landed in front of Sparks Mayor Tony Armstrong’s door at 4:45 a.m. That’s when Armstrong first heard that “God” had been cut out of signs at City Hall. It didn’t take long for the mayor—who bills himself as a “redneck” and in fact looks a bit like the Marlboro Man—to formulate a plan.

At 7 a.m., Armstrong stopped by the dry cleaners on the way to work and happened to run into Adams.

“I said, ‘Chet, did you see that article in the paper?’ “ the mayor says. “I told him what I was going to do—have new signs made. I asked him, ‘Will you support me if I get sued?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely, that’s why I’m here.’ “

Armstrong called the members of the Sparks City Council (minus one who couldn’t be reached) to clue them into his plans as well. He says they all indicated support.

So Armstrong stopped by the Flag Store on Glendale in Sparks and asked to have signs made that day.

“I told [the owner], ‘I got an emergency here.’ “

He spent $50 of his own money on four “God Bless America/United We Stand” signs with large flags, which he describes are “a little bigger and better.” About 11 hours after he read the story in the paper, the mayor was taping the signs up at City Hall. One in the front. One in back. One hangs in front of his office. Another resides in a potted plant in the lobby.

The notice of a complaint from the Nevada Attorney General’s Office sitting on Armstrong’s desk last Thursday isn’t about the signs. It was about the phone calls to City Council members—a possible violation of Nevada’s Open Meeting Law. The law essentially states that e-mails and phone calls can’t be used to get around the spirit of the law that requires meetings to be open to the public, with posted agendas.

That’s the big worry now for Armstrong, who’s been advised by Adams not to comment on the complaint.

As far as sign-hanging goes, he’s received hundreds of supportive e-mails, including offers from law firms in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., to represent him if he should happen to be sued.

“I had no idea,” he says. “It shocked me that so much attention would be paid to something like this.”

Sparks Mayor Tony Armstrong has received hundreds of supportive e-mails from around the nation.

At Armstrong’s private office for his home-inspection business, a radio station is tuned to KKOH for Rusty Humphries’ nationally syndicated show. A box of Marlboro Lights lies on the mayor’s tidy desk. Behind his desk is a slot machine tagged, “For fun only,” and from behind a shelf, the top of a poster is visible: “Hey Osama, let’s play.” There’s a colorful thank-you card from a class at Verdi Elementary.

The “God Bless America” episode has led to quite an education in U.S. history, religion and First Amendment law for the mayor, who attends a non-denominational church in Sparks but says he’s “not a preacher.”

“I don’t try to get people to go to my church,” he says. “Why I go and what I learn there is a personal thing. I’m not a religious fanatic. But I haven’t been damaged by it.”

He quotes Thomas Jefferson’s remark that “Christianity is the best friend of government in that it’s the only religion that changes the heart.”

Might a Buddhist or a Jew or a Muslim disagree?

“I’ve gotten support from people of all different religions,” Armstrong says. “They all support what I’ve done.”

Is City Hall open to hanging up other signs—like “Allah Bless America"?

“I’m told that Allah is the Arabic word for God, so when I say God, it means Allah, Jesus Christ or God himself,” Armstrong says. “It means whatever you want it to mean—your god, my god. If people are praying to statues of Buddha, that’s God. The bottom line is that I don’t think there’s anything improper here at all.”

More than anything, Armstrong wants the fervor to die down.

“I really want this to go away,” he says. “I’m not a hero. I just did what I thought was right. Quite frankly, I’m a little embarrassed by all the attention.”

When people in the United States see a sign that says “God Bless America,” they don’t think that the word “God” means Allah or Buddha, says Annie-Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

“The word ‘God’ signals the Judeo-Christian God,” Gaylor says. And people in this nation worship a “multitude of gods.”

“Wiccans have a different concept of deity, and orthodox Jews don’t like to spell out the word ‘God.’ “

And then there’s the increasing number of those who consider themselves “nonreligious"—some 14 percent of the American public, according to an American Religious Identification survey cited by Gaylor. The Sparks mayor would have been better served, she says, by hanging a sign out of the way, near his desk where he could appreciate it. Hanging large, in-your-face signs near the main entrances to a public building is “in bad taste and unacceptably coercive,” Gaylor says.

“He’s making a statement that could be offensive to 14 percent of the American public,” Gaylor says.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation has legally challenged such mixings of religion and government as the motto “In God We Trust” on U.S. money. The group filed a lawsuit in the 1990s but never got its day in court, Gaylor says. The money motto issue is important because it sets a precedent for, say, hanging signs in city halls.

The group also filed an amicus brief in the case of Michael Newdow, who’s fighting to have the clause “under God” removed from the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance. The clause was added in 1954 as a thumbed nose to Communism.

“There are generations of young people who don’t realize that the pledge used to be secular,” Gaylor says. “[Newdow] has accomplished a great deal in educating people.”

Last year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the phrase was unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court has accepted the case, with Justice Antonin Scalia recusing himself. It’s possible that the other eight justices—who seem to be evenly divided—could end up casting a 4-4 tie vote on the issue, leaving the Appeals Court decision in place.

“My hope is that those members of the Supreme Court would remember the pledge when it didn’t have God in it,” Gaylor says.

That could set a crisper precedent for local governments.

“We don’t think it’s necessary to mix the city and religion,” she says. In fact, “we need to tone down the rhetoric on religion” altogether, as it can be highly inflammatory. She references Thursday’s L.A. Times’ story about Lt. General William Boykin, newly appointed deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, who told a religious group in June that radical Islamists hated the United States “because we’re a Christian nation, because our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christian, and the enemy is a guy named Satan.”

” ‘Fight Satan'? This is the level of debate in our country right now,” Gaylor says.

To hang “God Bless America” signs not only endorses a belief in the Judeo-Christian God, but also asserts that this deity prefers and “blesses” our country above others, she says. “And that’s an offensive message to much of the world.”

City Attorney Adams also entertains thoughts of legal precedent. Along with a fat file of printed e-mails and news clippings is a seemingly unrelated story about the Rev. Fred Phelps’ erection of an anti-memorial to Matthew Shepherd, in the hometown of the slaughtered gay teen. The granite monument lists the date that Shepherd was “inducted into hell.” The city, having allowed free rein to other religious and political sentiments, believes its hands are tied.

It’s arguable that the city of Sparks has created a public forum with the mayor’s hanging of signs.

“If so, the courts say that any opposing views are entitled to be expressed,” Adams says.

Adams feels that most of the criticism he’s endured is well-intentioned, the “expressed beliefs of many who feed adamant about the issue.” And there’s another upside to the steaming controversy.

“This gives me a greater appreciation for our form of government and for a constitution that allows all of us freedom to express our opinions and thoughts on controversial issues."