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VWC Students Fight City Hall … and Win

VWC student Dante Davis addresses Norfolk City CouncilOn Tuesday, January 12, 2016, Virginia Wesleyan College sophomore Dante Davis thanked Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim and the members of the Norfolk City Council for adopting changes to the City’s municipal code, changes that had been recommended by VWC students the previous year. In January, 2015, speaking on behalf of her classmates in “Lobbying & Religious Advocacy,” VWC senior biology major Amanda Hyre asked the city’s elected leadership to expand from “church” to “non-profit organization” an exemption from the licensing fee required for yard and garage sales. In April, the City Council took up the matter, and changed the exemption from “church” to “place of worship.”

VWC students with former Newport News Mayor Joe Frank (l-r: Joseph Braun, Mayor Frank, Lauren Amos, Julia Downing, Kaelin Poe)But there was more. This year, the students from the course—taught under the auspices of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom by Center Religion, Law, & Politics Fellow (and former Washington lobbyist) Eric Mazur—requested that the City continue its examination of the municipal code, and replace the words “church” with “religious institution” in sections related to licensing fees for buses used for religious education or worship (§24-160f), prohibitions against drag racing on the property of a religious institution (§25-219) and requirements for snow removal on the property of a religious institution (§42-34 and §42-35).

The presentation to the Norfolk City Council was only one of a number of activities engaged in by the students in their investigation of participatory democracy and engaged citizenship. The previous week—after a “crash course” in American religion, government, and the basic concepts in religious liberty—they had the opportunity to sit and chat with former Newport News Mayor Joe Frank, the first popularly elected mayor from that city, about his considerable political experience and his thoughts on public participation in local governance.

VWC students visit the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (l-r: Joseph Braun, Dante Davis, Lauren Amos, Judy Golub, Kaelin Poe, Julia Downing)On Monday, January 11—the day before speaking to City Council—the students traveled to the Nation’s capital and met with Executive Director Brent Walker and Education & Outreach Specialist Charles Watson (both of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty) and American Jewish Committee Director of National & Legislative Affairs Richard Foltin. The students learned about some of the issues related to public interest advocacy and the protection of religious liberty rights for all Americans. The students then met with Director of Government & Media Relations Judith Golub, of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, and learned about international religious liberty issues and how they differ from the constitutional dilemma in the United States.

Following up on a successful appearance at the Norfolk City Council, on Wednesday, January 20, the class participated in the “Day for All People,” a state-wide lobbying day organized by the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. They were joined by Center Director Craig Wansink, Associate Director Kelly Jackson, and five additional VWC students, including Jasmine Burell, who was invited by the VICPP to participate in a panel discussion of racism. VWC student Jasmine Burrell (r) on VICPP racism panelVWC student Kaelin Poe addresses conference attendees

The students had an opportunity to take their message to elected state representatives, including VWC alum Sen. Richard Stuart (’88) and area Sen. Frank Wagner.

Meeting with State Sen. Frank Wagner (front, l-r: Mazur, Jasmine Burrell, Lauren Amos, Becca Lazzeri, Sen. Frank Wagner, Julia Downing, Nicolas Snyder, Luke Wentling; back, l-r: CSRF Director Professor Craig Wansink, Dante Davis, Center Associate Director Kelly Jackson, Kaelin Poe, Bryan Hogan)

While the students may have to wait again until April to see any results of their presentation to the Norfolk City Council, there is no doubt that they were well received. After the conclusion of the January 12 City Council meeting, Norfolk City Manager Marcus Jones complimented the students on their work, and asked if next year they wouldn’t mind also asking City Council to increase the salary for the City Manager!

VWC students with Norfolk City Manager Marcus Jones (l-r: Julia Downing, Dante Davis, Kaelin Poe, City Manager Jones, Lauren Amos, Joseph Braun, Luke Wentling)

[Travel and event registration funds for the course, which is taught through the Department of Religious Studies, were graciously provided by the College through the Course Enhancement Fund, The Lighthouse, and the QEP.]

 

APPENDIX #1
Statement read by VWC student Dante Davis to Norfolk City Council
January 12, 2016

Hello. My name is Dante Davis, and I am a sophomore at Virginia Wesleyan College. I am here representing my class – “Lobbying and Religious Advocacy” – which is taught under the supervision of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom, located on the beautiful Virginia Wesleyan campus.
            We would like to thank you for acting on the suggestions presented to you by our classmate Amanda Hyre last year. You may recall that, at that time, she and our classmates sought to amend the Code of the City of Norfolk as it related to the sale of permits to religious institutions seeking to host yard sales.
Today I wish to offer additional suggestions for ways that similar limitations within the Code of the City of Norfolk may be addressed. May I share with you a handout?
As you can see, in sections of the Code addressing vehicle licensing fees, automobile racing, and snow removal, we suggest that the word “church” be replaced with the phrase “religious institution.”
These changes are no more than has been done in other sections of the Code, not only in the section related to yard sales that we brought to your attention last year, but also – for example – in Chapter 29, section 53, titled “Trespass Upon Church or School Property,” where “church” is currently defined as “any place of worship,” and includes any “educational building, community center, or recreational facility” it owns or leases.
By making these changes, you will be amending the Code to reflect more accurately the considerable religious diversity of the City of Norfolk, and articulating a greater spirit of inclusivity for all of those who might seek to live and work here.
We encourage you to make these seemingly small but important changes. Thank you very much for your time.

APPENDIX #2
Follow-up Letter to Norfolk City Council

 

Dear Mayor Fraim and esteemed City Council members:

Thank you for allowing us to come share our thoughts with you at the City Council meeting held on January 12, 2016, and for taking the time to listen to our concerns.

As our classmate Dante Davis stated at that time, we would like for you to consider amending the language found in the following sections of the municipal code:

1)   Licenses & Taxation, §24-160(f)

“For each bus used exclusively for transportation to and from Sunday school or church religious education, or religious institution for the purpose of divine worship, the fee shall be twenty-five dollars ($25.00) on such buses weighing four thousand (4,000) pounds or less, and thirty dollars ($30.00) for such buses weighing more than four thousand (4,000) pounds.”

2)   Motor Vehicle Code, §25-219

“Any person who shall engage in a race between two (2) or more motor vehicles on the streets of the city, or upon any driveway or premises of a church religious institution, school recreational facility or business property open to the public …”

3)   Streets & Sidewalks, §42-34

“It shall be the duty of every person using or occupying, in any manner or for any purpose whatsoever, any house, store, shop, building or tenement of any kind, and of persons having charge of churches religious institutions and public buildings of any description, other than public schools and buildings …”

4)   Streets & Sidewalks, §42-35

“It shall be the duty…, and to cause snow and ice to be removed from the sidewalks fronting the houses, stores, churches religious institutions, lots or buildings of such persons as shall neglect or refuse to remove the same as provided in section 42-34 …”

As Dante noted, by making these changes, you will be amending the Code “to reflect more accurately the considerable religious diversity of the City of Norfolk, and articulating a greater spirit of inclusivity for all of those who might seek to live and work here.”

We truly enjoyed the welcoming atmosphere of the City Council forum, and we look forward to the opportunity to attend future meetings. In the meantime, as Dante urged you at the meeting, we encourage you to make these “seemingly small but important changes.” Thank you very much for your time.

Sincerely,

Lauren Amos
Virginia Wesleyan College
Class of 2016