Op-Ed: Hope for Civil Public Discourse Restored in San Diego County After Commission’s Failed Attempt to Remove Pastor
For months, I have watched closely as the San Diego County Human Relations Commission (HRC) has struggled to manage conflict between its members regarding differing religious beliefs. Watching these events unfold has been disheartening—especially since the sole purpose of the HRC is to “promote positive human relations, respect, and the integrity of every individual,” regardless of any protected class they may fall under, including religion. However, where there is conflict, there is opportunity to grow.
It is time to reflect on what we have learned from the HRC’s conflict and focus on what we can do moving forward to ensure people of all backgrounds and beliefs can thrive in our society.
Before we begin, let me briefly update you on the HRC’s actions.
Two months ago, I was saddened to see the HRC define the verses of the Bible as “hate speech” when spoken by my appointee Pastor Dennis Hodges at a commission meeting and, further, vote to amend their bylaws to allow for the removal of any commissioner for making comments that his or her colleagues deem objectionable. In my previous op-ed on March 30, I discussed how the HRC’s inability to tolerate differing beliefs among themselves was not only antithetical to our country’s values of freedom of speech and religion, but in direct opposition to the commission’s purpose.
At the Board of Supervisors meeting on April 5, 2021, the Board, the HRC, and the public shared a fruitful conversation on how to best move forward and voted to approve the bylaws under one important condition: the bylaws would not be retroactively applied to past grievances, in the spirit of helping the commission move past this conflict.
Despite our agreement, several HRC commissioners chose not to move forward with a clean slate and a spirit of collaboration. Upon those commissioners’ request, the HRC called a special meeting on June 9 to vote on the removal of Pastor Hodges from the commission. The motion to remove Hodges failed, and he will maintain his seat on the HRC.
I am hopeful after Thursday’s vote because it proves there is still room for civility, respect, and tolerance in San Diego County’s public discourse. Here is how we can best move forward and ensure another situation like this does not occur again.
First, we must learn how to not only tolerate, but respect those who disagree with us.
There will always be people who we disagree with and may even dislike. What defines us is how we handle this conflict. Purging and isolating people with differing beliefs when their message does not fit our desired narrative is not how we advance as a society. A competition of ideas produces the best results for society.
San Diego County is home to a beautifully diverse population, with a wide variety of cultures, races, religions, and ways of thinking. County employees, including county supervisors like myself, do not get to pick and choose who they serve. Appointed commissions, like the HRC, must keep in mind that respecting differing viewpoints is not just a choice, it is their obligation as a public entity.
Next, the Board of Supervisors must remember its responsibility to mitigate financial risk to taxpayer dollars when appointed commissions provoke potential legal action.
If the HRC had voted to remove Pastor Hodges, a discrimination lawsuit may have been filed against the County of San Diego. And who pays for the County’s exorbitant litigation costs and settlements? All of us.
Is it fair that taxpayers will be bearing the burden for actions taken by unelected commissioners who cannot be held accountable by the public? These are funds that we should be spending to fix our roads, build libraries, expand internet access, and improve our communities—not to tear each other down.
Thankfully, the county dodged such a lawsuit this past week. But moving forward, it is crucial that the Board of Supervisors maintain closer oversight over citizen commissions—and take action if the threat of a lawsuit arises.
When considering the HRC’s mission of promoting positive human relations, respect, and integrity in our communities, this commission has great potential to do good in our communities. I hope that, with these past few months behind them, the HRC can become a leading example in our county of how people overcome their differences to focus on what unites us, rather than divides us.