Carroll asking employees to extol character traits

Church-state concerns are raised by critics

May 04, 2001|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

The Carroll County commissioners voted yesterday to embrace a character development program lauded by a fundamentalist Judeo-Christian group, becoming the first locality in Maryland to promote traits in county workers it deems critical to good citizenship.

Each month, county government employees will be asked to extol a specific "Character First" trait: kindness or loyalty, obedience or self-confidence, responsibility or gratefulness. In all, 49 character traits will be promoted.

The county commissioners envision flags waving above Carroll's tree-lined Main Streets and posters in classrooms and at the county office building, reminding employees and their families of the trait they should be emulating in a particular month.

"The Board of Education is already doing this," Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier told her colleagues. "We could follow their lead. That way, a child goes to school and gets a character trait at school, a parent goes to work and gets a character trait at work, they come home and share it as a family."

Critics say such government-sponsored programs are cause for concern because they promote religious values and might violate the First Amendment guarantee of church-state separation.

"I think this program should be cause for deep concern," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based watchdog group. "It's something that should be looked at closely to make sure it does not become a promotion of religion."

Frazier said she got the idea last month at a three-day conference sponsored by the Judeo-Christian group International Association of Character Cities.

The Carroll school system adopted "character education" two years ago, a program intended to teach children basic values and ethics.

Such school programs are used in Baltimore, across much of Maryland and around the country, winning accolades from proponents who say they sidestep prickly debates over religion while teaching children traits critical to becoming responsible adults.

Promoting character traits is not a giant leap for the commissioners, who recently implemented a list of "Employee Golden Rules" that advocates mutual respect and consideration. The three-member board has also changed its employee evaluation forms to include an assessment of a worker's ability to "deal with anger, frustration and disappointment" and to "lead by example."

Frazier said she was inspired to propose the character-building program for county workers while attending the IACC conference in Flint, Mich. It cost Carroll taxpayers about $2,200 to fly Frazier and two county employees to the event.

Formed in 1998, the Oklahoma City-based IACC supports government and community leaders who promote character, "the inward motivation to do what is right, whatever the cost."

The group is a spinoff of the Institute in Basic Life Principles, a family ministry with headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., that offers seminars "based on the biblical principles upon which the nation of the United States and its law system are founded."

The institute, a self-described "seminar ministry" founded by Bill Gothard about 40 years ago, urges youths to practice disciplines such as tithing, rising early and memorizing Scripture.

Lynn said the association's "ultimate goal is to promote religiously based values."

"That's why the association holds these conferences," he said. "They are a backdoor effort to get government enmeshed in religious activities.

"And beyond any constitutional questions this might raise, I would think county employees would be deeply insulted. I would assume that the majority, if not all, of the 49 traits that the commissioners are espousing are traits that their employees are already trying to emulate."

More than 400 people representing 15 countries attended the IACC conference. Government officials from Canada, Uganda and Australia were there. More than 90 cities have pledged to become "Character Cities." An administrative assistant to IACC Director Gerard Coury declined yesterday to identify any of the cities "for their own protection." Coury could not be reached for comment.

While at the conference, Frazier attended a workshop that focused on juvenile crime reduction. The workshop offered "practical, proven steps" on how to resolve the problems of young people who "reject character," according to an IACC brochure.

"What I learned dovetailed really well with everything we're trying to do with the ACTIVE Alliance," said Frazier, who earlier this year was defeated in her bid to ban recreational activities on Sunday mornings.

For months, the ACTIVE (Adults and Children Together Improving Values and Ethics) Alliance for a Healthier Community has been trying to combat youth violence and alcohol and drug addiction in Carroll County. With the commissioners' support, the coalition is calling for programs including faith-based marriage counseling and greater availability of long-term care for substance users.

Its initiatives stemmed from the commissioners' strategic plan - a to-do list for their four-year term - which calls for a "focus on youths and families" to "reduce the risk of crime and substance abuse."

Robert A. "Max" Bair, special assistant to the commissioners, and Jolene Sullivan, director of the county's citizen services, hope to meet soon with town leaders, business owners, law enforcement officials and members of the faith community in hopes of persuading them to embrace the Character First Program. Bair and Sullivan accompanied Frazier to the conference in Michigan.

"This particular initiative has the potential to get [everyone] working together ... in addressing what we need to do in the county to strengthen neighborhoods and families," Bair said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.