In fight against ‘tyranny,’ Michigan board declares itself ‘constitutional county’

In drafting the resolution to become a ‘constitutional county,’ commissioners relied on the writings of a Wisconsin pastor who promotes the idea of resistance to civil authorities.

Ottawa County, red, in western Michigan. Image courtesy Google Maps

(RNS) — The Board of Commissioners of a lakeshore Michigan county has passed a resolution declaring it a “constitutional county,” a designation favored by some far-right groups who believe state and federal governments have become tyrannical.

Ottawa County, which borders Lake Michigan, is the second state county to vote on becoming a “constitutional county” in the space of a month. Commissioners in Livingston County, located between Detroit and Lansing, adopted a similar resolution with a focus on the Second Amendment last month.

Though the wording of each resolution was different, the effect is to declare that the county will uphold the rights it views as established by the U.S. Constitution and the Michigan Constitution, minus whatever laws or mandates the county believes are unconstitutional. It explicitly encourages local law officers such as the sheriff and county prosecutor to not enforce state and federal laws they deem unconstitutional.

The resolution, which is largely symbolic, is influenced by the writings of a Wisconsin pastor who promotes the idea of resistance to civil authority. The commissioners who voted for the resolution, all Christian, are committed to the idea that God has blessed America.

Sylvia Rhodea. Photo courtesy Ottawa County

Sylvia Rhodea. Photo courtesy of Ottawa County

“We wish to highlight freedoms and constitutional rights which have been violated over the past few years as well as those currently at risk due to societal and political pressures,” said Ottawa County vice chair Sylvia Rhodea in a prepared statement prior to the vote Wednesday (May 24). 

Among those violations she mentioned was a “required affirmation of a Marxist DEI value system for some county positions,” which she said conflicts with her religious beliefs. (DEI is an acronym for “diversity, equity and inclusion,” an organizational framework that promotes full participation of people or groups that have historically been underrepresented.) She also noted individual freedoms that were “repeatedly violated” during the coronavirus pandemic.

The 9-1 vote, with the lone Democrat on the Board of Commissioners opposing the measure, came after midnight, following six hours of public comment. It was the latest foray for the newly elected board, which swept into office in January on a platform of restoring the county’s Judeo-Christian heritage and thwarting tyranny, government overreach and injustice.

Hundreds of residents of Ottawa County crammed into the commissioners’ meeting room and an overflow room on Tuesday. By a 3-2 ratio, they begged the commissioners not to adopt the resolution.

“If every local governmental unit saw its role as interpreting and following the Constitution as they see fit, our democracy would collapse and our country would fall into chaos,” said Milton Nieuwsma of Holland, Michigan, who spoke up at the meeting.

The resolution adopted directs the board “not to authorize or appropriate funds, resources, employees, agencies, contractors, buildings, or offices for the purpose of enforcing any statute, law, rule, order or regulation that restricts the rights of any law-abiding citizen affirmed by the United States Constitution.”

It was not clear if the county intended, for example, to resist a red flag law that aims to keep firearms away from those at risk of harming themselves or others. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the red flag law on Monday.

Ottawa County, which voted for Donald Trump by nearly 60% in 2020, is a deeply red county in a blue state that went for President Joe Biden.

Last year, a newly formed organization called Ottawa Impact unseated eight incumbent Republican county commissioners to win a controlling majority of the 11-member board. (Two of those commissioners have since publicly distanced themselves from the group but nonetheless voted to approve the “constitutional county” resolution.)

Vice-Chairperson Sylvia Rhodea, second from right, speaks during an Ottawa County Board of Commissioners meeting, Tuesday, May 23, 2023, in Grand Haven, Michigan. Video screen grab

Vice Chairperson Sylvia Rhodea, second from right, speaks during an Ottawa County Board of Commissioners meeting, May 23, 2023, in Grand Haven, Michigan. Video screen grab

The new commissioners became politically active after the county and state health departments shut down a Hudsonville Christian school for not complying with a 2020 coronavirus mask mandate that resulted in an outbreak.

While Ottawa County has long been the province of Dutch settlers with a distinct Calvinist brand of Christianity, it has recently been consumed by a more muscular form of evangelical Christianity common in other parts of the country. That Christianity, sometimes called Christian nationalism, maintains that preserving a Christian America may require overturning laws.

RELATED: What is Christian nationalism, anyway?

In their first meeting on Jan. 3, the new commissioners fired the county administrator and legal counsel, closed the county’s office for diversity, equity and inclusion and attempted to demote the health officer. They also changed the county motto from “Ottawa County: Where You Belong” to “Ottawa County: Where Freedom Rings.”

“They are about this far-right agenda of ‘We’re going to do things their way,’ and by the way, ‘we’re going to use Scripture to get there,’” said Roger Bergman, the sole incumbent Republican commissioner who was not defeated in 2020. He was not present at Tuesday’s meeting.

In drafting the resolution to become a “constitutional county,” the commissioners were relying on the writings of Matt Trewhella, a Brookfield, Wisconsin, pastor who in the 1990s created an anti-abortion militia and more recently has been active in promoting the idea of resistance to civil authorities based on the ideas of John Calvin and the Magdeburg Confession of 1550, which called on Protestant pastors to resist political tyranny.

Pastor Matthew Trewhella gives an online sermon in an Oct. 2022 video. Video screen grab

Pastor Matt Trewhella gives an online sermon in an October 2022 video. Video screen grab

Trewhella gave a talk at an Ottawa County GOP fundraiser on May 10, where his self-published 2013 book, “The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates,” was available. His newest venture is a website called County Before Country: Expanding God’s Kingdom through Christian Localism.

Both Joe Moss, the new chairman of the county commission, as well as Rhodea, his vice chair, endorsed Trewhella’s book and made a YouTube video to promote his ideas.

“Understand, the wicked tyrants always count on the blithe compliance of the lesser authorities in order to get their evil down in the fabric of society,” Trewhella said at the May 10 GOP fundraiser, according to an audio recording of his talk. “The interposition of the lesser authorities is massively important to stop evil in a nation.”

County commissioners are generally tasked with overseeing the health and safety of residents. They supervise those who plow the roads, maintain the parks and issue licenses and certificates.

Resolutions like this, say law experts, have no teeth.

“They’re assertions of ideological spleen,” said Nicholas Bagley, a law professor at the University of Michigan. “It’s a way for the counties to signal that they are unhappy with the direction the state is going. But legally the declarations are meaningless.”

Still, many residents expressed shock and dismay at their county commissioners’ actions Tuesday. They included a Michigan State University student who was barricaded in a gym on campus during the Feb. 13 mass shooting that resulted in the deaths of three students. She  begged commissioners not to disregard new gun safety laws.

David Barnosky, a retired pipeline surveyor who began a Facebook group called Ottawa Objects, said the new commissioners have abrogated power that’s not theirs.

“They think they know everything,” said Barnosky. “They’re not even close.”

RELATED: Who are the Christian nationalists? A taxonomy for the post-Jan. 6 world

This story was reported with support from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation.

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