The mayor of Virginia’s capital city stands accused of diverting city resources toward the church he heads, and he seems to think he can violate the First Amendment while simultaneously claiming that the Constitution shields him from punishment.
In addition to being mayor of Richmond, the Rev. Dwight C. Jones (D) is also senior pastor at First Baptist Church of South Richmond. He was elected mayor in 2008 and since that time city offices have been salted with employees who are also members of First Baptist.
At this point, it is difficult to say whether or not the city employees who are also members of the church are qualified for their positions. But even if they are, there is a problem: A number of church members who work for the city are accused of conducting church business on the job.
The Richmond Free Press reported last week that the Richmond Ambulance Authority fired a top official because she was caught doing work for First Baptist during business hours. Pamela J. Branch, who had headed the agency’s human resources and legal departments for several years, was fired for doing volunteer church clerical work on city time. Branch has declined comment on the matter.
Unfortunately, Branch’s firing seems to be just the tip of the steeple. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, a top city official who resigned in 2015 did so after being pressured to hire a member of First Baptist. City finance chief Norman Butts resigned last June after what he says was an argument with the mayor’s office over the potential hiring of a church member who already worked for the city in another capacity. Butts was allegedly asked to hire Angela Yancey, who was then an administrator in Richmond’s Social Services Department, for an open position in Butts’ office. But Butts already had another candidate in mind after several interviews – and Yancey hadn’t even applied for the job.
Yancey told the Times-Dispatch that she has no knowledge of the disagreement over that finance job. She now works for the Office of Minority Business Development and makes $121,541, the Times-Dispatch said.
As of early January, more than 10 percent of Richmond’s executive-level positions were filled by members of First Baptist.
“What I am aware of is that out of 58 executive-level positions, six are held by people that are affiliated with First Baptist Church of South Richmond – one of the largest churches in the city of Richmond with about 3,000 members,” Jones spokeswoman Tammy D. Hawley said in a statement.
While First Baptist may be a large church, Richmond is not a small town. The state capital has more than 200,000 residents. It seems unlikely that any single house of worship could produce such a high percentage of qualified city employees.
But the allegations surrounding Jones are not limited to his staff. Earlier this year, City Auditor Umesh Dalal issued a report that said Emmanuel Adediran, head of public works for Richmond, supervised renovation work for First Baptist on taxpayer time. Initially, Dalal’s report cited only a handful of emails that showed Adediran was doing church activities through his work email account. But a short time later, more than 200 additional emails were found showing Adediran had done church work on the job – and some of those communications had been sent to Jones, informing him of the progress on the project.
That isn’t all. In an editorial, the Times-Dispatch noted that city money may have been spent to assist First Baptist directly. The evidence includes two contractors who listed Richmond city offices as the billing address for estimates on kitchen equipment for the church. While it has not yet been proven that Richmond taxpayers footed this bill, there are clearly some questions that Jones needs to answer.
For his part, Jones has not said much. When he won his position in 2008, he claimed he would “give up the sort of day-to-day operations of the church,” though he added that he “will remain active in those communities.”
It doesn’t seem as if Jones has stepped back from his duties as pastor much, if any, since he took office. And back in January, he had the audacity to claim that the First Amendment should shield him from investigation.
“I have to question the motives of people who are asking city employees about their religious affiliation. I hope that none of this is politically motivated and that respect can be shown for the wall of separation between church and state,” Jones said.
He also said at that time that the issue with Adediran was closed.
“We’ve gone to great lengths to take corrective action to avoid even the appearance of any impropriety,” he said, adding that Adediran would forfeit 38 hours of vacation time as punishment.
This is all part of an ongoing investigation and more work needs to be done to determine the full extent to which Jones might have used his position to benefit his church.
In the meantime, it seems Jones is right about one thing – this is a church-state matter. But that doesn’t mean church-state separation allows him to do anything he pleases with city resources to help his church. It’s quite the opposite.
It seems that Jones seeks a merger between the city of Richmond and his church. Whenever an individual like Jones, who seemingly has no respect for the First Amendment, claims church-state separation should protect him there is a pretty good chance that something fishy is going on.