A colorful voicemail left on the cell phone of a Southern California pastor by an experienced state Capitol staffer has brought more attention to a bill making the rounds in Sacramento and brought into question how political staff members and constituents should interact.
Pastor Marc T. Little of Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood said on Aug. 10, he and 54 members of a group from his church and other black churches visited the Sacramento offices of Los Angeles-area legislators and voiced their concern with Senate Bill 1146. Also known as the Equity in Higher Education Act, the bill– before it was amended–would have made it easier for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students at religious colleges to sue for discrimination if they are penalized for violating church doctrine.
Little said he passed out a stern, but not rude letter to numerous legislators. Little wrote that he was encouraged by the bill’s recent amendment, but was opposed to any bill that flirts with removing exemptions given to religious institutions to exercise their faith.
“Additionally, this is an attempt to choose one group, perceived to be discriminated against, over a 300-year history in the U.S. without any demonstrable evidence of discrimination,” the letter read.
While sitting in the Appropriations Committee hearing about SB 1146, the same day, Little received a voice message from Joey Hill, Chief of Staff to Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer. Hill’s message referenced Little’s letter.
The political and policy worker of three decades dropped two f-bombs and a donkey reference in the voicemail of a respected religious figure with a white collar.
“Yes, this message is for Pastor Marc Little. I don’t know how you call yourself a pastor after writing this ridiculously hateful letter. And you have the nerve to cite history? You are just either stupid, ignorant or evil. Three hundred year history…Well what about make an analogy about slavery? What’s wrong with you? You want to cite Leviticus? Read your Bible over again, man, and find some love in your fuckin’ heart, you fuckin’ asshole.”
Little said the message shocked him.
“That is not how you receive opposition or support,” he said. “Joey Hill, I don’t know what happened to him that day, but he went off the rails in such a way it has not only galvanized the church, but it has galvanized a coalition.”
Hill said he is sorry about leaving the voice message and has since left the pastor another voice message apologizing. He has also mailed Little an apology card. Little confirmed he received Hill’s voice message and that Jones-Sawyer also apologized. The pastor said he was leery of having a phone call with Hill because of the language Hill used. He said he and Bishop Kenneth Ulmer, Faithful Central’s senior pastor, want to have meeting with Hill and Jones-Sawyer.
Hill said he did not intend to take a profane tone with the minister. The political and policy veteran said he was angered about the actions he had heard members of Little’s group had taken and words
they used against staff in Jones-Sawyer’s and other politicians’ offices. Hill said staff in his office tried to explain to the group that SB 1146 had been amended. He said some of the group was nice, while others were confrontational.
“Especially two gentlemen yelling ‘I don’t want my 3-year-old, 6-year-old grandkids to be taught how to be homosexuals,” said Hill adding that a lot of the visiting group’s ire was directed at a 23-year-old intern. “I’m very protective of young, African-American staffers.”
Hill said he was told the group mentioned trying to oust Jones-Sawyer from office for supporting SB 1146.
“I perceived this as a political threat. You don’t mix politics and policy,” Hill said. “So, when I read the letter from Marc Little…I just got pissed. I did not take the time to take a breath. I’m taking responsibility for what I did. It was very unprofessional. It was the wrong thing to do.”
On Aug. 23, Assemblymember Autumn Burke of Inglewood posted a letter addressed to Ulmer on her Facebook page. In the letter, the politician detailed why she and others support SB 1146 and addressed Hill’s voicemail and the actions surrounding it.
Burke said members of Little’s Capitol group visited her office in a non-respectful manner. Burke wrote that the group questioned the faith of one of her staffers because he is openly gay. Burke wrote she does not agree with the language Hill used in his message, but she does agree with “the sentiment that Pastor Marc Little’s delegation’s message is devoid of historical context, respect, and compassion.”
Little insists his visits to Sacramento legislative offices were non-confrontational.
“I walked to offices and handed out letters and no one treated me inappropriately, even those I knew who disagreed,” he said. “I went into Autumn Burke’s office – they know me, they know what I stand for – and Autumn Burke’s Chief of Staff sat me down and asked me why I was there. She said, ‘Thank you and I will make sure the member gets your statement.’”
Bob Stern of the Center of Governmental Studies in Los Angeles said ideally discourse between constituents and political staff should be cordial, but intense moments arise.
“With legislation sometimes, depending on what it is, people can be defensive about it and get upset,” he said. “People get excited and passionate about bills and legislation.”
Stern harkened back to the time in the 1970s when two politicians got in a fist fight over a measure.
“Some people get very excited,” he said. “Obviously people should treat each other with respect though.”
SB 1146 was amended before Little’s group visited Sacramento. The bill was at the center of heated debate between faith-based private universities and gender equality advocates across the state, but the bill’s author, Sen. Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens, removed a provision in the bill that sought to take away the exemption of religious schools to anti-discrimination laws. The amended bill still requires such schools to disclose if they have an exemption and report to the state when students are expelled for violating morality codes.
“The goal for me has always been to shed the light on the appalling and unacceptable discrimination against LGBT students at these private religious institutions throughout California,” Lara told media.
“I don’t want to just rush a bill that’s going to have unintended consequences so I want to take a break to really study this issue further.”
The Association of Faith Based Institutions, a group against the bill, wrote in a letter “Pending review of this new language, we are pleased to change our position on this legislation from ‘oppose unless amended’ to ‘support.’”
Little, author of “The Prodigal Republican: Faith and Politics,” said religious exemption predates the signing of the U.S. Constitution, and the constitution cements religious exemptions. He said he is not against LGBT rights, but pro-religious freedom. Little said if faith-based colleges and universities have a moral code of conduct some doesn’t like, they shouldn’t go to that school.
Hill, a proud democrat, said he supports the LGBT community’s fight for equality and believes SB 1146 is the right legislation at the right time. He said he has always fought for minority and disenfranchised groups.
Little said his church is calling for all churches offended by Hill’s words to not allow elected officials visiting churches in an official capacity to speak about issues unless they stand for religious freedom.
“One man could affect all their candidacies,” Little said of Hill. “Blatant disrespect of the Body of Christ. You can offend me – Marc Little – he disrespected the Body of Christ.
Hill said Little should have just called him back.
“He is the one that chose to take this out in public,” Hill said. “He should have just called and maybe we could have just agreed to disagree. We have both been working in the black community for years trying to make our community better. We just have different vantage points.”