By Ross Markman
Less than 12 hours after proposing to the City Council that Havre appoint a city chaplain, Mayor Bob Rice has changed his mind, saying he'd rather not make religion a political topic.
Rice suggested to the council Tuesday night that it have an unpaid, on-call chaplain to assist in emergency situations where a member of the clergy may be needed. Such incidents could include car accidents or domestic disturbances.
"There was a city chaplain in Havre about 20 years ago, but it went by the wayside. I think we need one again," Rice told the council, seeking their approval.
He didn't get it.
Instead, the council unanimously agreed to hold a public forum tonight at 7 to discuss the feasibility of appointing a city chaplain. Rice, however, said earlier today that the forum is unnecessary because he has abandoned the idea altogether.
"After talking to some of the clergy, I've decided not to do it," Rice said. "It was a good thing we wanted to do, but I'm just not going to pursue it."
Regardless, council president Richard Pierson said the meeting will still be held tonight in the City Council chambers. Pierson said Tuesday night that appointing a city chaplain could prompt lawsuits or complaints that the city is violating the separation of church and state.
"This needs to be looked at to see whether we can do this or not. I'm not against it, but we need to have a public meeting to find out how people feel about this," Pierson said. "To create a position like this, there needs to be guidelines set down. We're just trying to protect the town and the council."
At least one person in Havre favors the idea the Rev. Rowlie Hutton of the Fifth Avenue Christian Church, who volunteered to be the first pastor to serve a one-year term as city chaplain.
"I think it's a great idea. We're going to work with the mayor, the council and whoever to answer some of the questions they may have," Hutton said. "I know there are a lot of communities that are gun-shy about (the separation of) church and state. That surprises me a little bit."
For now, Hutton said, he and other local clergy are available for any community, police or fire department needs. As far as the city chaplain position is concerned, Hutton said he plans to work with Rice on seeing the idea become a reality.
"Probably what we're going to do is back up a little bit and do more preliminary work to make sure nobody has any concerns," he said. "From my perspective, I think it's a positive thing for Havre. Any time you can get the churches involved, it's a good thing."