SIMI VALLEY, Calif. -- Simi Valley atheist Stuart Bechman is the area's very own church/state separation watchdog.
Bechman, 51, was instrumental in drawing attention several years ago to a large cross on Mt. McCoy on land that had been donated to the Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District. To his satisfaction, the cross and 0.61 acres of surrounding land were eventually sold to the private nonprofit Simi Valley Historical Society.
These days, Bechman has set his secular sights on what he considers another separation issue -- a framed poster in the Simi Valley City Council's foyer in City Hall saluting U.S. military personnel. The problem, in Bechman's view, is that the poster also states "God Bless America" and "God Bless You."
In a written complaint he delivered to the council on Monday, Bechman argued that the mounting of the poster on a wall next to a "Council Chamber" sign implies that the council endorses the poster's religious references.
"It is one thing to hold personal religious beliefs, which City Council members certainly have the right to hold," wrote Bechman, a 15-year Simi Valley resident who is a national advisory council member of Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "But it is quite another thing to use one's elected position and government resources to actively promote those beliefs to the exclusion of others in the name of our government."
While the phrase "separation of church and state" is not found in the U.S. Constitution, the First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
The phrase stems from an 1802 letter to a Baptists association from Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that the First Amendment established "a wall of separation between church and state."
Bechman's complaint also argued that the poster "ignores those soldiers and their families who hold no religious beliefs," such as his brother, Kevin, who has spent a quarter century in the Air Force.
Furthermore, Bechman contended, the poster disrespects nonbelievers, which he estimated -- based on national averages -- to be about 18,000 Simi Valley residents.
"These religious messages ... present the message that it's exclusively the religious community of Simi Valley that supports and honors our military personnel," wrote Bechman, who authors a blog, SecularSimi.blogspot.com.
He suggested the city replace the poster with another one that is "inclusive and (does) not promote a single religious view."
Bechman told the council that since first noticing the poster last summer, he has sent some half dozen letters expressing his concerns to City Manager Mike Sedell, Mayor Bob Huber and council members Glen Becerra and Barbra Williamson, but has yet to receive a reply.
"I'm basically here asking what does it take to get a response from the city for one of your constituents?" he asked the council.
Huber promised to get back to him.
But Becerra dismissed Bechman's complaint.
"I didn't respond to his letters. I was too busy trying to save the cross on Mt. McCoy, Becerra said to laughs from some in the council's chambers. Bechman had left the meeting by then.
Becerra helped broker the sale of the cross to the historical society, contributing $1,000 from his campaign account toward the purchase.
He argued the poster hardly constitutes the establishment of a state-run religion as prohibited by the First Amendment.
"So the poster stays?" Williamson asked him.
"I'm happy with the poster staying," Becerra responded. "I hope you'll all join me in that."
"Well, I do," Williamson said. "So there you go."
Huber and council members Steve Sojka and Mike Judge remained silent. None of the council members asked to have the issue placed on a future council agenda for reviews.
Attorney Wendy Lascher, a constitutional and appellate law specialist with Ventura County's largest private law firm, Ferguson Case Orr Paterson, said it's a close call as to whether the poster violates the separation of church and state.
"I think it's a bad idea to put it up, and tacky to keep it there when someone has complained about it, but you've got 'God Bless America' sung at public functions and 'In God We Trust' on money," she said. "And I don't think the primary purpose of putting it there was religious. So I would bet they could get away with it.
"But I think it's close," she added. "If I were on the bench, I'd probably say 'take it down."'