SEQUIM —The Sequim City Council, which continues to meet in virtual sessions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, voted unanimously that they all must blur their backgrounds when in session after members spotted a cross in former mayor William Armacost’s background.
A few council members took issue with it during the “open council discussion” portion of the Jan. 10 meeting.
“I think for council decorum, I think we should conduct ourselves as if we’re in city chambers,” said council member Kathy Downer.
“Across our country, we do not mix religion and politics. We are in nonpartisan seats.
“We should not be wearing any political affiliation like an elephant, a donkey or a Punisher pin,” she added, referring to a pin Armacost had been known to wear in council meetings some time ago.
“We should be in a virtual city council chamber,” Downer said. “Cities do not allow a cross to be hung on a wall of a council chamber.”
In response, Armacost held a $100 bill to the screen and said, “Not that I’m trying to disagree, but the reason our founding fathers chose to take the voyage to uncharted lands was for religious freedoms that we all enjoy.”
“There’s a reason that in the Constitution it references ‘In God We Trust,’ and there’s this wonderful component of the Constitution — the First Amendment — and we have freedom of rights,” Armacost said.
(God is not referred to in the U.S. Constitution. The phrase “In God We Trust” was placed on coins beginning in the late 1800s and on paper money in 1957 after President Dwight Eisenhower signed into law the phrase as the national motto in 1956.)
“I am not opposed to accommodating your concerns or others, and I believe strongly in separation of church and state,” Armacost said.
Armacost added that his technical skills are not quite up to speed and buttons to blur his background were not appearing.
Council member Vicki Lowe, who has said she is descended both from Sequim-area pioneers and the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, said it would “take (Armacost) little effort to just move your camera so we would not have to view your cross.”
“Some of my ancestors did not come here, and they were already here,” she said. “If I put anything tribal in my background, I think people would come unglued.
“In all fairness, Mr. Armacost, it would be good if we did not have to view your cross and that we should treat these meetings as if in council chambers.”
Armacost said in his tenure he’s been asked several times: “Why don’t we have a cross or a Buddha or another identifying symbol as we do with the totem in the center of our plaza?”
Lowe said a cross and a totem pole are different things.
“A totem pole is a cultural item. It’s not religious. It tells a story,” she said.
Council member Rachel Anderson said Armacost received an email from a resident asking her to keep her children out of the webcam during meetings.
“I kind of feel if my own kids can’t be in the background of a meeting in my own home, and I can blur my background, everybody can,” she said.
City attorney Kristina Nelson-Gross, who suggested the motion to blur out backgrounds on Zoom, said, “There is a Constitutional requirement of separation of church and state (and) I am hearing everybody who agrees with that.”
“Now keeping in mind we’re in some interesting times where we are in our homes rather than in our council chambers, there might need to be a certain amount of grace about the things we have in our home,” she said.
“As councilor Lowe pointed out, the easiest solution is to blur the background.”
She added that Armacost mentioned he was having issues with the application through a web browser rather than the app itself.
The motion goes into effect at the Jan. 24 virtual city council meeting.
Matthew Nash is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. Reach him at [email protected].