Should specific theologies shape public school policy? Richard “Dean” Hill, a candidate for Durango School District 9-R school board, hasn’t exactly said so, but he has insisted that followers of Jesus Christ need to take their place as leaders among nonbelievers.
The school board election, featuring seven candidates across three districts, has been the battle front for several issues of importance to parents of children in the 9-R school district. The lines have been drawn on the grounds of COVID-19 masking and school visitor policies, equity for students and school district transparency. But Hill has caught attention for his views on the so-called separation of church and state.
Hill was featured in a 48-second video that had all the signs of a political attack ad. Dramatic music plays in the background as the video cuts from clip to clip of Hill, assistant pastor at Pine Valley Church in Bayfield, talking about how the separation of church and state doesn’t appear anywhere in the U.S. Constitution.
The short video was cut together using clips from a Pine Valley Church service that was livestreamed on YouTube on Aug. 22. It begins with a clip of Hill saying that kids don’t come with an operator’s manual, but they do come with an owner’s manual: The Bible.
Harrison Wendt, a Durango resident and former City Council candidate, said he began researching the candidates for school board when he came across Hill’s Aug. 22 sermon. He put together clips into a video and shared it on Facebook. Since then, many others have shared it.
“There’s people my age, 25 and younger, who would probably never think about voting in a school board election who are actually going to vote for the first time because they see how dangerous his speech is,” Wendt said in an interview Monday.
“... That’s what really caught my eye, a man who speaks so highly of maintaining freedom for children and parents and then gives a sermon a month earlier about how there is no separation of church and state and how the owner’s manual to a child is the Bible,” he said.
The video is also hosted on the Save 9R Facebook page, which claims to be a bipartisan effort on the part of parents, teachers and local leaders “working to defend common sense, quality leadership for our 9R School Board and to educate and inform voters.”
Subtitles are overlaid on screen as Hill issues his most controversial quote from the video. The video shows Hill lamenting that “we believe the lie that there’s (such a) thing as separation of church and state.”
“Really?” asks Hill. “There is no separation clause anywhere.”
Another clip features Hill posing two questions: “What is the church going to do? And what is the government going to do?”
As the video fades to black, more text appears on screen saying “Dean Hill doesn’t believe in the separation of Church and State” and tells La Plata County voters to vote by Nov. 2.
There’s more to Hill’s approximately 50-minute sermon than the separation of church and state, and Hill seems to quickly move on from the subject. But the meaning behind Hill’s words doesn’t appear to change from how they appear in the short video criticizing Hill’s take on the separation of church and state.
In the full sermon, Hill leads into his comments about church and state by saying, “We need to rise up. We need to take our place where we belong.”
He added that the only reason that “separation of church and state” was phrased the way it is, is because “they were talking about, ‘We’re getting out of the Church of England and I don’t want the Church of England being our boss.’”
In an interview with The Durango Herald, Hill doubled down on the fact that the phrase “separation of church and state” doesn’t appear in the Constitution.
“There’s nowhere in the Constitution where that’s said,” Hill said. “... And it (the Constitution) doesn’t say that as somebody who is a member of a church who believes in Jesus Christ shouldn’t be a part of politics.”
Hill is correct when he says the Constitution doesn’t prohibit members of any religious institution from participating in politics. He was also correct when he said that the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear verbatim in the Constitution.
What the Constitution does say of religion’s relationship with government is found in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...”
In a follow-up email asking Hill for his views about the Establishment Clause and how it relates to the separation of church and state, Hill responded by saying the Establishment Clause grants the freedom of religion.
Hill said if elected to the school board, he will bring his worldview to the table just as other board members would bring theirs.
“Our filters are different, but I also believe this: I’ve always been a consensus builder, I’ve always been a relationship builder,” Hill said. “My hope is that if I get in there, we can get together and come together and find the things that we agree upon rather than focusing on the things that we don’t agree upon.”
Hill said the primary focus of school board members is to spend more time on the issues that are directed toward student achievement.
“That’s the focus where I plan on moving toward,” Hill said. “How do we supply these skills, the strategies, the education, that these kids need to be a good workforce and a good solid citizen of the United States?”
Hill is running against Richard “Rick” Petersen in the Durango 9-R school board District C election.