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Evangelicals making tracks in Hot Springs 

click to enlarge JUDGE RALPH OHM: His presiding over drug court is a "calling."
  • JUDGE RALPH OHM: His presiding over drug court is a "calling."

Hot Springs is the town where you gamble on the ponies, tread in the steps of gangsters taking the waters, and where a club on one of its most busy streets advertises "Strip Karaoke." Hot baths, massages, the pleasures of the body are part of its soul; "Prairie Home Companion" humorist Garrison Keillor called it the "loose buckle on the Bible Belt."

But there's another spring bubbling up in the so-called Spa City, one that's bringing holy water to the surface. The Tea Party is steeping its message in it; the Republicans are sipping it, the court system is awash in it. When an anti-Semitic remark was casually tossed off in a recent election, many shoulders simply shrugged.

When a Republican like Cliff Jackson, raised in the Assembly of God Church, and best known as Bill Clinton's nemesis, thinks Hot Springs is moving toward theocracy, you've got to wonder. Is he right?

Jackson believes what's happening in Hot Springs, which has a thriving evangelical community, is part of a larger movement to "usher in Jesus Christ" to take dominion over secular government, to use holy writ as overriding law — a goal not dissimilar, he said, to the Taliban's.

"Goggle-eyed" was the way Jackson described his reaction to Mayor Ruth Carney's remarks after a day spent last fall with Republican theologian David Barton. Asked by a reporter from the Hot Springs Sentinel Record what she'd taken away from Barton's address to Republican elected officials, Carney, the wife of the Nazarene pastor who had invited Barton to town, said she'd learned that where the Bible had spoken, there was no need for man to create law. "Marriage was from the Bible, so when man takes it and re-creates the marriage statute, then it's against what was biblical-based," she told Hot Springs' daily newspaper. "That was just one little example of making laws to define something that has already been defined."

She was no doubt thinking of laws that allow same-sex marriage. But Jackson, in a letter to the editor of the Sentinel Record that the paper decided not to publish, wrote, "Which Biblical verses would she have us follow? Polygamy? Women as chattel? Divorce only for adultery? Gays an 'abomination'? Verses where God approves concubines? Women being silent and submissive to men? Having sex with one's daughters?"

To a reporter, he said, "I asked her who's going to do the concubinage dissolution?" Where are the ecclesiastical courts?

The answer to that last question might be at the Garland County Courthouse. More on that later.

Not a single Democrat won in Garland County's House and county races last November. It was a clean sweep, turning out, for example, incumbent state Rep. Gene Shelby, a leader in the hospital trauma system movement in 2009 who was seeking a seat in the Senate. Voters even chose a dead Republican over a living Democrat in a race for the House District 24 seat.

Elected by a wide margin to represent House District 26 — one that encompasses a part of Garland County south of Hot Springs — was Loy Mauch, an Abraham Lincoln-despising secessionist who believes the government will one day dose our water supply with lithium to lift our spirits and statin drugs to lower our cholesterol.

It was a bad year for Democrats the state and nation over, but Garland County's most conservative organizations — the Tea Party, the Watchmen, the Garland Good Government Group — are organized, active and can take a good part of the credit. Their number, some suggest, includes the many well-off retirees that move to Hot Springs and Garland County and believe they know what's best for the community, which largely parallels what's best for them personally. Or at least that's how some people see it, though they declined to be quoted. Of the conservative groups, only the Watchmen of Garland County is overtly religious. The group was founded in 2008, according to its mission statement, "for the purpose of educating the citizens of Garland County, Arkansas as to the objectiveness of the Pro-Gambling, Abortionists, and Homosexual communities in Hot Springs, Arkansas and Garland County Arkansas." Two of the founders of the Watchmen were Ken Carney, the mayor's husband and pastor of First Church of the Nazarene, and Hettie Lou Brooks, owner of Brookhill Ranch Summer Christian Camp. (As it happens, David Barton — whose vision of a Christian nation, former Gov. Mike Huckabee famously said, we should be forced to learn "at gunpoint" — sent his children to Brookhill, where every camper is "saved" at the conclusion of camp.)

The Watchmen and the Garland Good Government Group, or GGGG, flexed some muscle in 2009 when they headed up a recall of Hot Springs City Director Carroll Weatherford, who came under fire for traveling on the city's dime and other issues.

At the time, Diane Silverman was a member of the GGGG. Now she's a leader in the Garland County Tea Party, ostensibly a sectarian group. But the Tea Party now breaks bread with the Christian nation crowd, sponsoring a twice-weekly "Constitution Class" at Carney's church (also the new meeting place of the Republican Party of Garland County). The Tea Party class uses as its text "The 5,000 Year Leap," authored by the late Mormon prophet Cleon Skousen and championed by right-wing commentator Glenn Beck.

Before Beck fell in love with Skousen, the author was a forgotten Red-baiting John Bircher extremist who even the far right had dismissed as a profit-motivated kook. In "The 5,000 Year Leap," Skousen, like Barton, claims that America is, literally, God's country.

Silverman, who is Jewish, said recently that when evangelicals talk about a Christian nation, "they mean Judeo-Christian."

Maybe that's what conservatives mean. But here's what county GOP committee member Chuck Chatham wrote in a campaign letter during the special election for the House that pitted Republican Bruce Cozart against Democrat Jerry Rephan:

"The election is between Bruce Cozart (R), a pro-life, Christian who has served a number of years on the Lake Hamilton school board and Jerry Rephan (D). Jerry is a pro-abortion Jewish lawyer who specializes in 'environmental law' which means his primary clients as such were the Sierra Club and PETA, among others."

Chatham said his characterization of Rephan as a Jew was "inadvertent." But here's what Bob Driggers of the GGGG said when asked about the description of Rephan: "Well, he's Jewish, isn't he?"

That's the sort of comment you might expect in a community that opens its City Board meetings with a prayer in Christ's name and where the city's drug court, under Municipal Judge Ralph Ohm, resounds with cries of "Amen!" And "Praise Jesus!"

Judge Ohm, 58, is open, friendly, courteous and welcomes visitors to his courtroom. He is also deeply religious, decorates his office with crosses and has been told by members of the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission that "we wish you wouldn't talk about God so much [in the courtroom]."

The JDDC looked into Ohm's court proceedings earlier this year after someone complained that the judge was pushing offenders into Christian rehabilitation programs, including one at Ohm's church, the First Church of the Nazarene — the Carneys' church. At the conclusion of its inquiry, in March, the commission wrote Ohm that it did not "find any evidence of judicial misconduct."

Ohm, who is part-time and who conducts, for no pay, the only misdemeanor drug court in the state, said he was happy to have the JDDC come to his courtroom. "If I'm doing something wrong, tell me and I'll fix it," he said.

Ohm said that he had been asking offenders "if they believed in God." The commission "asked me to wait until a defendant brought up the issue of God."

Ohm doesn't need to bring up God in his Friday drug courts, where offenders report in on their progress in rehabilitation and which he conducts without pay. It's a tent revival, with offenders (and sometimes the judge) weeping and praising God for what he's done to turn their lives around. Among the officials in the courtroom is probation officer Chris Carney, a graduate of the faith-based Teen Challenge rehab program who happens to be the son of Mayor Carney. (He was hired before his mother's run for mayor.) Only once, when this reporter visited the courtroom, did Ohm seem to solicit an offender's comments on God when, after one woman said she was a different person, he said, "You know why you're different?" It was a rhetorical question.

One offender — who had been arrested for beating up her boyfriend and whose mother told Ohm she had a drug problem — returned to court after two weeks in Potter's Clay, a faith-based program for women, with a boom box. She plugged it in and stood before the judge singing Natalie Grant's "In Better Hands." When she sang the verse "It's like the breath of Jesus is right here in this room," the courtroom erupted with shouts of "Yes!" and "Praise God!"

"It's kind of weird," Ohm said later in his office. "A lot of people in drug court are extremely talented. If somebody wants to sing, I let them."

Another offender that day told the judge that she was different because "I've got God in my life." A young man told him that God had blessed him with a new truck (his bicycle had been stolen from a church, he relayed, to much laughter from the courtroom). "God is good," he told the judge.

Their commitment is clearer in some than in others. Another man brought before the judge after he'd stolen from his father to support a hydrocodone habit told Ohm "God's got me." But he declined the judge's offer to send him to the faith-based program at The Father's House ("You're going to hear 'Jesus' until it runs out your ears," Father's House representative Brian Henry advised the man) after he learned he'd have to give up smoking.

Ohm doesn't see how giving a defendant the choice of jail or time in a faith-based rehab could be seen as promoting religion. "They are being pressured to go to rehabilitation as opposed to paying a fine, but not pressured to go to a faith-based" program. The judge is clearly passionate about getting people help turning around their lives, and he says it just so happens that there are more Christian programs than secular programs available. If people aren't interested in faith-based rehab, he said he'll offer secular programs, including Quapaw House, which is run by the state, but which he said is small and expensive. The judge stressed that only about 80 people in his caseload of thousands go to Christian programs.

A man who asked that his name not be revealed contacted the Times to say that he felt he'd been coerced into attending the outpatient Celebrate Recovery program. He tried it for two weeks, returned to court and said he didn't wish to continue because of the six-month contract it requires. He claims Ohm "got aggravated" and gave him five days in jail and a fine of $400 for public intoxication. The man — who said he was Christian and wasn't averse to religion — felt he had no choice but to continue with Celebrate Recovery.

Ohm said the defendant may have thought he was being penalized, but "that would not be true."

Ohm, who has been using faith-based programs for four years, said, "I've had great success in doing this. From my court's perspective, it's not about fining people and putting them in jail."

Ohm said there was no data on recidivism from the Christian rehab programs in Hot Springs, but he said he was seeing few repeat offenders in his courtroom. "I will see some of them again, but not many." He conceded he wouldn't see those who might end up in circuit court on felony charges. He sees misdemeanors only.

Is it possible their experience in his Friday court, with the many shouts of "Amen" and his obvious approval of faith-based programs blur for those in attendance the concept of the separation of church and state? "Anything is possible," Ohm said, adding that there would be other influences on their lives. "I believe separation of church and state is a valuable and important concept," the judge said, "but I do not believe organizations should be excluded from helping people just because they have their genesis in church."

Ohm said Friday drug and alcohol courts are his favorite days, and that his presiding over them is a "calling."

Ruth Carney, because of her remarks about the Bible and the law, the fact that she is married to pastor Ken Carney, and because of her campaign support by Hot Springs Women of Prayer, has been held up as an example of the Spa City's flirtation with so-called Christian government.

Hot Springs is run by a city manager. The mayor conducts the meetings of the City Board and has a vote, but no more power than that. She doesn't even have an office in City Hall, something she's trying to rectify.

Nevertheless, Carney, 62, has been a lightning rod since taking office in January, drawing criticism from the Sentinel Record — which Tea Baggers and the GGGG like to call the Senile Record — and fellow board members alike. In an odd move for a city booster, as one assumes the mayor to be, she criticized the city's attendance estimate at its St. Patrick's Day Parade ("The World's Shortest") as wildly overblown. She has cast the lone no vote on issues that even those aligned with her, in a gesture of conciliation and concensus, have voted for. Most recently, she made a joke on a Facebook page that she'd hired snipers to get rid of tourists that littered, were drunk and didn't pay good tips, humor that has backfired. Using a page from Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola's playbook, she's asked the Advertising and Promotion Commission to use its 3 percent hotel and restaurant tax to fund the city's parks department to free up dollars in the general fund, a suggestion it declined.

Carney, who won by a plurality, with 48 percent of the vote compared to former Mayor Mike Bush's 42 percent and recalled director Carroll Weatherford's 10 percent, acknowledges being a greenhorn.

"I'm not a politician," she said in an interview, "but I know how to be nice to people." She said she ran for mayor after attending city board meetings starting several years ago and becoming "overwhelmed at how rude [the board] was to each other and the citizens." She said Hot Springs was being run like Hazzard County, with Mayor Bush (who even supporters describe as abrasive) as "Boss" Hogg. Echoing the GGGG and the Tea Party, she says she's tired of the "good old boys" being in charge and is sympathetic to Tea Party charges that the 3 percent A and P tax is "taxation without representation."

The "good old boys," which would include the tourism industry and city managers, "don't like me. I'm new and I'm messing up the system," Carney said. As proof she offered the fact that the Hot Springs Convention Center trashed a welcome letter she wrote for the 2011 Hot Springs Guest Guide, using the A&P commission chief's instead.

Carney had been invited by CEO Steve Arrison after the fall election to write the letter for the introductory page, as Mayor Bush did the year previous, and was told she could crib what was already written or write her own. She wrote her own, citing Hot Springs attractions such as the Duck Tours and the RayLynn Theater, two businesses she says the Advertising and Promotion Commission routinely ignores in its marketing efforts. She omitted any mention of Oaklawn Park, which many would consider to be one of Hot Springs' defining attractions, and which claims to have a $200 million economic impact on the city. Carney said she didn't need to mention Oaklawn in her greeting to tourists because it was mentioned elsewhere, many times, in the guide.

Carney believes her letter didn't run because of objections to its content; Bureau CEO Steve Arrison said it didn't run because she did not get the letter to him before the print deadline. "If it was a matter of not liking her, we wouldn't have asked her" to write a letter, Arrison said.

Carney's more famous run-in with the Advertising and Promotion Commission came when the Sentinel Record, obtained and published an e-mail from the mayor to the board calling Arrison's estimate of 30,000 in attendance at the St. Patrick's Day parade "baseless" and "absurd" and saying the city should be more careful when putting out crowd estimates. The e-mail prompted an uproar and within days the City Board passed a resolution thanking the A and P Commission for the work it does to promote Hot Springs. Some 160 people turned out for the board meeting on the resolution, which was unanimously approved.

In her interview with a reporter, Carney suggested it was equally absurd to infer from her remark that she did not support tourism in Hot Springs, as some did. She then told her sniper joke, adding, "Don't put that in." Her repeat of the joke on Facebook brought a damning editorial from the Sentinel Record on May 11. "For some reason," the editorial said, "the mayor does not understand that what she says and how she presents herself reflects — good or bad — on the city and its residents." And, for some reason, the mayor decided to stoke the fires with a Facebook post, writing "I, Ruth Carney do solemnly swear to be solem [sic], never to be sarcastic, always BE SERIOUS and to love, honor and cherish TOURISM, all TOURISM INDUSTRY WORKERS, TOURISM RELATED buses, trucks, cars, people, children, conference attendees" and, later, "Did you hear! Ruth Carney LOVES Tourism! She supports it! She loves everybody in the Tourism Industry!......will this make the front page of the Sentinel Record? Probably not...they really don't care about reporting the 'truth.' Fair? Balanced? what does that mean?" If people didn't know before that Carney, who campaigned on returning civility to government, has a sarcastic streak a mile wide, they do now.

Carney has one sure ally on the board in Director Peggy Maruther. But she has alienated Director Elaine Jones, also a GGGG target, for trying to rotate her off the Advertising and Promotion Board, and has gotten flak from other board members for her desire, shared by Maruther, to let the public speak at length at meetings, whether the issue they want to address is on the agenda or not. In February, for example, Carney and Maruther were upset that a minister who wanted the city to audit Oaklawn Park had not been allowed to speak, despite the fact that the board had voted 5-2 to remove the resolution based on his request from its consent agenda as beyond the city's purview.

Carney was incensed (and other directors, too, were surprised) at another meeting when Directors Jones and Tom Daniels openly criticized Dr. Tom Robertson's nomination for the Civil Service Commission. The directors charged that Robertson bore "false witness" by bringing claims of ethics violations against them; Robertson, who did not win a position on the commission, has since sued the two for $1 million each for defamation.

Carney was furious that Robertson wasn't allowed to respond after the motion to appoint him was tabled. When the suit was filed, she complained that the city attorney had referred the suit to the Municipal League, saying she thought it was bad policy to provide insurance for what she deemed intentional misconduct on the part of the directors. Since then, Director Cynthia Keheley, who's been on the board for two and a half years, has introduced a resolution that restates board policy on limiting speakers to three minutes on issues on the agenda, and allowing the mayor to give them an extra minute to wrap up.

"I have had a concern that there has been a lack of going by the established rules ... and straying off course, not being able to take care of the city's business and the agenda items," Keheley said last week. "We need to restore and return to some form of rules and regulations."

Keheley noted that Arkansas Municipal League counsel Mark Hayes had given a "wonderful" explanation of the role of the Board of Directors, the city manager, mayoral power and their ability to limit speech at a work session a week ago.

Keheley's resolution, which was tabled, also said that personal electronic devices should be silenced, and it is telling of how things are going in Hot Springs that at last week's work session a small but vocal group of citizens "thought we were banning every electronic device that God made, including medical devices," Keheley said. They protested that her resolution was "against the American way." Keheley said she merely wants cell phones silenced, which is board policy already. The only new policy her resolution would introduce, she said, is a 15-minute public comment period after board meetings.

(Keheley herself has been a target of the GGGG, which in protest of her resolution posted on its website a cartoon showing guns being pointed at her. She protested, and the cartoon was pulled down.)

Carney, who told a reporter that she felt like she was meeting with her therapist because of all the talking she was doing in the interview, said she wants people who "bash" her to "get to know me."

She spent 10 years doing missionary work in the Dominican Republic before moving to Hot Springs 15 years ago. She worked with Garland County CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), which she said was "my way of getting back in the streets," and trained to be a therapeutic foster parent. She says she is not aligned with the Tea Party on all matters; when it comes to illegal immigration, for example, she is for clemency: "I would walk across the desert to save my children."

Carney said she didn't "bring Jesus, God, Christ into my campaign." She said she was stirred to anger by the disrespectful nature of the City Council and is a person who wants "to fix broken things." Asked why she didn't run sooner, she said it wasn't the right time. She did not mention that her husband was a candidate for the City Council two years ago; he was defeated by Daniel.

Does Carney believe America is a Christian nation? She paused before replying yes, "only in that it's not a Hindu nation, it's not a Jewish nation." Like Barton, she says that the separation of church and state is a Biblical concept, to keep the state from intruding into church affairs. She said hers is a "Biblical world view" that believes that "God's law is law." She quoted Barton as telling the officials, "Don't use your religious terminology. Don't turn people off. He wanted to show us how to have an influence without being obnoxious."

Carney said "I'm still discovering America." By that she meant she's finding that the political process sometimes requires that people limit their speech. But she believes that she's not the one acting out of order at meetings, but that what's happening at the meetings is out of order.

One of the things David Barton advised in his meeting with elected officials in Hot Springs — a meeting that began with a choked-up Ken Carney proclaiming that "God is favoring our county" — was that when it comes to attempts by the public to limit prayer and other religious activities, "don't trust your attorneys."

Hot Springs evangelicals — and their Tea Party and GGGG associates — don't trust anyone in charge, apparently.

Jerry Rephan, the lawyer who lost to Cozart in the special election for the House of Representatives, said it's "not the case at all" that there is growing anti-semitic sentiment in Hot Springs. During his campaign, he said, "I heard support for me and respect for the Jewish community," which has deep roots in Hot Springs. But, he added, "it's something to be cautious about."

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