Roseville chili cook-off lands city officials in hot water

Published: Tuesday, Mar. 12, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Tuesday, Mar. 12, 2013 - 10:35 am

A chili cook-off in Roseville is stewing in controversy.

City officials had some explaining to do after they were accused of by a national group of improperly endorsing a religious fundraiser – in the form of a celebrity cook-off.

In a Feb. 26 letter addressed to Mayor Susan Rohan, the Freedom From Religion Foundation said a message sent from a city employee's official email endorsing the cook-off and the fact that it will occur at a city-owned facility "gives the appearance that this event is co-sponsored by the City of Roseville."

"Even if the City of Roseville is not a sponsor of this event, it is inappropriate for a government employee to use his or her official email to promote events benefiting a religious ministry," the letter reads.

The city – which emphasized it is not a sponsor of the event – said an employee inappropriately sent the email.

The chili cook-off, in its second year, benefits the Coalition for Placer Youth and the nonreligious arm of Campus Life, said Rob Maxey, the area director of Campus Life.

He said that while Campus Life is religious in nature, its share of the proceeds supports Campus Life Connection, which holds anti-bullying assemblies at schools. Materials publicizing the event do not make that distinction.

The extra money lets the group put on the assemblies at schools that cannot afford the normal fee, he said.

"Last year it allowed us to do three assemblies at local Roseville schools at no cost," Maxey said.

The celebrity chefs include the city's mayor, police chief, fire chief, parks director, three City Council people and a county supervisor.

The event, at the Maidu Community Center, starts at 6:30 p.m. Friday.

Maxey said his organization did not get any special benefit. "We are paying full pop – $1,500 to rent it for the evening," he said.

"In the good old days, we did not have city hall used for religious purposes," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Wisconsin foundation.

The city quickly responded to the foundation's assertion and accompanying information request.

In a letter dated March 5, Assistant City Manager Rob Jensen said that the city is not endorsing the event, did not give any special benefits to the event coordinator and that the email promoting it was "improperly sent out."

"I recognize and regret that a single city employee improperly sent out a single email promoting the event," Jensen said. "The matter has been addressed with the employee, and it has been made clear to her that she must not send out such communications in the future."

Gaylor said she was pleased with the speed and clarity of the response.

"It's just unfortunate that it happened," Gaylor said. "She was violating city policy. I don't know of any government policy that permits using email for religious or political purposes."

The email in question was sent to a handful of people at the executive board of the Roseville Coalition of Neighborhood Associations.

City staff are not to send out email supporting any event where the city is not a co-sponsor, said Megan MacPherson, a spokeswoman for the city.

"This was just an honest error by an employee," MacPherson said.

Gaylor said it's important to defend the establishment clause of the Constitution.

Legal scholars were on the fence about whether the email violated the First Amendment.

Alan Brownstein, a UC Davis law professor, said a problem arises when employees are picking which event to endorse or support.

"You want to avoid speaking as the government endorsing a religion," Brownstein said.

He called this violation a stretch. Call The Bee's Ed Fletcher, (916) 321-1269. Follow him on Twitter @newsfletch.

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