Uterine vs. Vatican: Local politics ablaze in South Carolina
This was the week when "uterus rights" confronted a Catholic congregation's intentions to expand its buildings and parking areas.
On Monday, November 17, two of the seven members the Beaufort County (SC) Land Management Committee voted against the St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church's request to rezone from rural to suburban property. The church is located in the Bluffton area, one of the state's fastest-growing population centers, only a few miles from the popular resorts of Hilton Head Island. The dissenting councilmen expressed their concern that the rezoning would cause even greater traffic problems along a busy highway.
But it was a third voice of opposition that caused by far the greatest controversy. Councilwoman Laura Von Harten, who is not a member of the Land Management Committee, stated that she would vote "Nay" to the zoning change when it came before County Council, adding that "I just have to vote in favor of love and not hate."
Von Harten spoke of official Vatican policies' "affront to (her) dignity and of all womankind." She did not "want to support anything that will perpetuate" the exclusion of women from the priesthood and suppression of "uterus rights."
Father Ronald Cellini of St. Peter's Catholic Church in Beaufort responded that "I've lived in South Carolina for 15 years and have never heard such religious bigotry."
On Tuesday, November 18, Von Harten decided Tuesday to abstain from the upcoming County Council vote on St. Gregory's request, saying that "I think my personal opinions are obviously going to get in the way of me making a fair decision." She went on to say that "I don't want us to have exclusive communities in Beaufort County" and that she resists "race restrictions, age restrictions and sex restrictions."
On Wednesday, November 19, Von Harten issued an apology: "I interjected my concerns regarding the Catholic Church into a zoning discussion, and for that I am truly sorry. Please be assured that I have been reminded of the importance of separation of church and state in matters of land use, and have learned a great deal from this incident. As I have publically (sic) stated, I will abstain from voting on the project currently under consideration. I ask for your forgiveness and pledge to approach my duties as councilwoman from a more restrained and objective viewpoint."
The Island Packet newspaper added that "Von Harten's letter, however, makes clear that she does not intend to resign from the council." County Council Chairman Weston Newton said that he was "shocked and appalled" by her initial commentsand that "to express racial, ethnic or religious discrimination in the context of public service is completely inappropriate." A Beaufort County attorney, however, stated that neither Newton nor the full County Council has the authority to reprimand Von Harten.
The incident has drawn the attention of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in New York City. Bill Donohue, the League's president commented that "without the slightest provocation, Laura Von Harten decided to bash Catholicism. This suggests an animus so deep as to call into question her fitness for public service. She should do more than recuse herself on matters Catholic -- she should resign from her post as councilwoman. There is no legitimate role for bigots in public life." The organization called for Von Harten's resignation.
Councilwoman Von Harten said that her remarks had been motivated by the principles of her own Unitarian Universalist religion, which urges individuals to express their conscience openly. Her minister, the Reverend Nan White, clarified that although Von Harten is "respected in her own search for truth and her inherent dignity as a person ... Unitarian Universalism has long advocated a clear separation of church and state, with the understanding that political power or influence is not to be used either to advance or impede any particular faith."
• Brownstein,Daniel. "Board member disagrees with Catholic teachings; Will vote against expansion." Island Packet (Hilton Head Island, SC). November 18, 2008. http://www.beaufortgazette.com/local/story/621015.html Accessed November 20, 2008.
• Shapiro, Michael Welles. "Anti-Catholic remarks draw ire from council colleagues." Island Packet (Hilton Head Island, SC).
November 18, 2008. http://www.beaufortgazette.com/local/story/622049.html Accessed November 20, 2008.
• Shapiro, Michael Welles. "Councilwoman writes apology for anti-Catholic remarks." Island Packet (Hilton Head Island, SC). http://www.beaufortgazette.com/local/story/623407.html November 19, 2008. Accessed November 20, 2008.