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Group avoids Baha'i event:

The Human Relations Commission declines to endorse Race Unity Day, and some members say the reason is prejudice

Fayetteville Observer-Times (North Carolina),
Thursday, May 21, 1998
page 1B

by Scott Travis and Laura Kinsler, staff writers

[See also editorial "Faith and Justice: If Baha'is weren't truly snubbed, they were insulted".]

The Fayetteville Human Relations Commission, a group whose mission is to improve race relations, decided Wednesday not to endorse a Race Unity Day that is sponsored by the local Baha'i congregation.

Members of the congregation attended a Human Relations Commission meeting in April to ask for the group's support for the June 14 event.

Fred Khavari, a Baha'i, said the Race Unity Day has been celebrated all over the world for more than 30 years. In the Baha'i Faith, all followers are equal in the eyes of God.

The unity of mankind, in both race and religion, has been something Baha'is have quietly promoted throughout their 150-year history. Baha'i is a Persian word that means "follower of the Glory of God."

Reason for declining

The official reason the Human Relations Commission gave for declining to participate in the event was that a body of the city government could not officially sanction a religious event. But some commission members said the real reason was simple prejudice.

"I'm detecting a sense of fear because we don't know who these people are or if their religion is legitimate," the Rev Floyd Johnson said. "If the Methodists or the Baptists came to us, would we be questioning this?"

Johnson said the commission should not use separation of church and state as an excuse for intolerance. He pointed out that the commission participated in the Martin Luther King Prayer Breakfast without officially endorsing religion.

Commission member Ann Groninger said she worried that the Baha'is were not being treated fairly. "I don't feel comfortable that they're not being treated the same as other religious groups, " she said.

Lt. Col. Kathleen Seith, a commission member, said she didn't feel comfortable sanctioning the event because she had never heard of the Baha'i. "Does anyone know anything about them?" she asked. "I mean, they could be Satan worshipers."

Joyce Malone, another commission member, said, "Yes, I have a fear of this group. They've been here 20 years and they only have 12 members? And they're all white? I'll admit it, I am afraid."

Chairwoman Sandy Sweitzer said the size of the group is irrelevant. She pointed out that her own Quaker congregation has only 10 members. "This community is not tolerant of non-mainstream Christian religions," she said, "I am familiar with their religion. They are not some kind of cult, and they are not Satan worshipers."

Carolyn McKinley, chairman of the local spiritual assembly of Baha'is, said she is disappointed in the commission's response. "We went to the Human Relations Commission because we knew they tried to build cooperative efforts with different groups," she said. "Baha'i is becoming more widespread, but I understand there are people who have not heard of us." McKinley said the Race Unity Day picnic will go on as scheduled the afternoon of June 14 at Seabrook Park. It will run from 2 to 6 p.m.

[Comment: For the record, when I and a colleague presented our proposal to the Commission, we gave each member a nice, glossy introductory pamphlet, a copy of the "The Vision of Race Unity" by the NSA [National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States], and a fact sheet on the Fayetteville-Cumberland Co. Baha'is and on Race Unity Day. In the county, we have around 12 active members, one black & 2 part native American. In the city, there are around 20 enrolled members of various ethnic backgrounds... the city has just elected its first active LSA [Local Spiritual Assembly].
--Dr. Richard A McKinley]

Copyright ©1998, Fayetteville Observer-Times
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