Roanoke County Supervisor Al Bedrosian on Monday held a news conference to discuss a range of political issues within the county, including prayer at public meetings, which was thrust into the spotlight last week following a series of controversial remarks he made after a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Bedrosian spoke just days after the nonpartisan Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent a complaint to Roanoke County Attorney Paul Mahoney. In the letter, the group decried comments by Bedrosian that he would not approve, personally, a non-Christian’s request to give the opening invocation at board meetings.
He has said that supervisors from other districts could choose to allow whomever they wanted to offer the invocation, and they would be held accountable to voters for their decisions.
His proposed policy change and subsequent comments gained national attention from media outlets, including the online site Gawker, and sparked a conversation locally about his interpretation of the Supreme Court’s decision. While his remarks bolstered the spirits of the 14 or so people who attended his Monday news conference — at times they stopped to applaud him — evidence of friction within the local Republican committee suggests that broader reception for his position on prayer may be less enthusiastic.
In an email sent Friday to each supervisor except Bedrosian, former Roanoke County Republican Party Chairman Mike Bailey condemned Bedrosian’s proposal to scrap the current policy.
“I don’t want to get into this but America is not a Christian nation,” Bailey wrote. “Our founding fathers wanted America to be a nation of freedom built upon Christian values. There is a difference. I hope Roanoke knows that Al does not speak for the Republican Party on this issue.”
Reached Monday, Bailey said he couldn’t speak for the party, but described Bedrosian’s view on prayer at public meetings as one held by a minority within the party.
“There’s always somebody on both sides of an issue, but I think a majority of people aren’t as far right as Al on this issue,” he said. “He does have a way of stirring things up. I’m hoping it’ll be different this time. I’m hoping he’ll tone down a little bit.”
At the news conference, Bedrosian resurrected many of the same points he brings up at the average government meeting, including skepticism about climate change and the ways in which the county spends money. More than half of the conference, though, was used to speak about his position on prayer, in which he reiterated his belief that he, as an elected official, could choose to deny a person’s request to him to give the invocation at government meetings based on that person’s faith.
“Whether someone is invited to pray or chant in our meetings has nothing to do with our freedom to pray in America,” Bedrosian said, adding that they could pray the way they wanted elsewhere. “Any supervisor can invite anyone to pray.”
Max Beyer, a usually outspoken member of the local Republican Committee, decided to keep mum on the issue until given direction.
“No comment, and the main reason for it is I don’t know where other people stand on it,” Beyer said. “I want to be consistent with the party. If I have a strong feeling one way or the other, I’m on my own.”
Reached Monday afternoon, Roanoke County Republican Committee Chairman David Suetterlein said the First Amendment extends to all people regardless of their religious background.
“The party doesn’t have a formal position, but most Republicans that I’ve talked with believe the Supreme Court was right in the town of Greece case,” Suetterlein said.
While the committee does not have an official position, Suetterlein said, demonstration of a person’s religious belief should be allowed in private and public, including the invocation at Roanoke County Board of Supervisors meetings. Whether the local committee will establish policy on the matter remains unclear.
“No one has come forward with the suggestion of a policy or that one should be formulated,” Suetterlein added.
Bedrosian was one of three Republicans elected onto the board in November. Both his party peers, Chairman Joe McNamara and Supervisor Jason Peters, have said they do not agree with his position.
Peters said the feeling within the party toward Bedrosian’s comments have been overwhelmingly negative.
“We’re totally against it,” he said. “I am Christian, and I don’t hide behind that, but I’m both offended and it bothers me that he’s misrepresenting the Christian community.”
Peters said he doubts a system in which there is not a uniform policy for allowing people to offer the opening invocation, that as an elected official Bedrosian cannot choose to exclude one faith over another.
He added that he believes Bedrosian’s comments have given Roanoke County a black eye.
Only one supervisor has decided keep his thoughts to himself. Supervisor Butch Church attended Bedrosian’s news conference, but when asked whether he supported his peer, he waved a reporter off.
“I’m not going to make any comment at all,” he said.
Adding to a chorus of critics, Supervisor Charlotte Moore said she wanted to assure Roanoke County residents that Bedrosian’s view is just one on a board of diverse thinkers.
“He’s only one person, and I hope people realize that,” Moore said.
At the meeting on Monday, Bedrosian echoed the comments made by Moore, saying that the same philosophy he espouses as a supervisor is the same one he espoused during his campaign.
“I have an opinion,” he said. “I was hired with this same opinion.”