Chesterton Tribune

 

 

Back and forth with atheists gets Commissioner Biggs out of his seat

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A story on the front page of Friday’s edition of the Chesterton Tribune, titled, “Back and forth with atheists gets Commissioner Biggs out of his seat,” contained an error.

The story misidentified the atheist group that went before the Commissioners--they are the Northern Indiana Atheists, a South Bend-based group with members throughout northern Indiana.

The Tribune regrets the error.

 

By LILY REX

An Atheist group had a heated exchange with officials at the Porter County Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday following a request to use the Courthouse grounds.

The Northern Indiana Atheists asked to use the Courthouse Lawn on Friday, Dec. 6--the same day Valparaiso Events has been approved to host its annual Holly Days celebration. The Commissioners approved the use of the Courthouse grounds for Holly Days at their Aug. 13 meeting.

Troy Moss, President of the South Bend-based group, said the way the Commissioners have handled the two requests is troubling for several reasons. Moss reported he first contacted Porter County on Aug. 8 about a request to set up an information table and display signs on the Courthouse lawn on Dec. 6 and was denied a place on the Aug. 13 agenda because he didn’t submit a request to be on it at least a week in advance.

However, Moss says a copy of Valparaiso Events’ request shows that they were put on the agenda with only a day’s notice. Moss also said he was asked to provide photos of and dimensions for the two signs his group plans to display. “Our research indicates that Valparaiso events was not required to provide this kind of information.,” Moss said.

The group was on the agenda for Sept. 3, but the Board continued the issue because no one from the group attended. Moss said no one told him he had to be present for his request to be heard, and said Valparaiso Events’ requests have been historically approved without a member of the group present.

Just prior to Moss making his request, the Board in fact approved Valparaiso Events to use the Courthouse lawn for the Fall Harvest Festival Oct. 18, with no members of the group present. The Board’s August approval of Holly Days was the same.

County Attorney Scott McClure told Moss Valparaiso Events isn’t getting preferential treatment, but the Board is just more familiar with them and their recurring events. He noted the Board asked another religious group, Courtside Ministries, to come to multiple meetings to sort out an agreement to offer prayer to those who want it as they leave or enter the Courthouse on weekdays.

The agreement with that group specified that they cannot use the Courthouse lawn on any days where another group has been approved to use it. Members of the prayer group are also prohibited from approaching people and using the square concrete pad directly in front of the south Courthouse entrance, according to McClure.

Commissioners Jim Biggs, R-North, and Jeff Good, R-Center, and McClure suggested the group can request another date, but Moss maintained that equal access to him means NIA should be allowed to use the Courthouse grounds during Holly Days. Moss said there is precedent for the group not needing the whole grounds, since part of the site was under construction last year, and the Holly Days request doesn’t specify use of the entire lawn.

“You want to be there at the same time as they do for a certain reason,” Biggs said. “I believe you’re there to cause trouble, that’s my opinion, and as a public official, I don’t have to stand up here and promote that.” Biggs said no one is denying the group access, but the Board decides what day and time groups use the space.

The Board voted to table the discussion, and the exchange escalated when Good mumbled that Moss should “go back to Michiana.” Good hesitated to repeat himself when Moss called him on the comment, but then said, “I said it cause I said it. Good day.”

As Moss walked past Biggs to return to the audience, Biggs felt that Moss was “staring him down” and got out of his seat. Biggs told Moss “don’t come in here to cause trouble. Now I want you to leave.” McClure stood up to separate Biggs and Moss, and assured the group that there’s an agreement to be made.

In the furor, a member of the audience was upset by the Board’s treatment of the group. She stood up and said there are “good people” who live and were born in Valparaiso who believe in separation of church and state. She then walked out of the meeting.

Later, Center Township resident Pamela Tincher questioned the Board during the public comment. She asked if other groups, such as a Muslim group or the Satanic Temple, would get the same blanket approval to offer prayer as Courtside Ministries received. McClure said every request is unique, but the Courtside Ministries agreement isn’t a stance. “Just because Courtside Ministries may be there on Tuesday, that doesn’t mean a Muslin group or the Atheists cannot be there another day,” McClure said.

Tincher said County officials shouldn’t want a religious freedom lawsuit on their hands: “I think that it’s a waste of taxpayer money. Just wanted to put that out there.”

After the meeting, Biggs said he got out of his seat and got in Moss’ face because he was upset by Moss’ “attitude.” He added, “Should I have done it? No. I wouldn’t do it again.”

Biggs said he was happy to go on record saying he doesn’t support the group’s beliefs, but he thinks they still have a right to speak, although he won’t approve two groups to use the same space if their opposing messages might ignite a conflict.

 

 

Posted 10/11/2019

 

 
 
 
 

 

 

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