It began with a symbolic proposal to declare Austin a “compassionate community” and ended with the website of the Satanic Temple blown up on the video screen at City Hall.
Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen said she was seeking to follow other such designated cities when she offered up a resolution signaling the council’s support for the Charter for Compassion, a 2009 document crafted by religious leaders worldwide that calls for compassion to be a “clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world.”
But Council Member Don Zimmerman, a fiscally and socially conservative Republican who is often in the minority on the council, objected to what he saw as religious language in the charter when it first came up Tuesday.
Zimmerman, who is a practicing Christian, said the language urged “idolatry” of Earth rather than its creator and talked about compassion breaking down ideological boundaries when Jesus did that better than anyone. He also said the resolution was “marrying religion with politics” in a city where residents often decry mixing the two.
Not finding much support, Zimmerman chose a different plan of attack when the council considered the resolution Thursday. He proposed a change to add two paragraphs to the resolution:
“WHEREAS, Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there, and to honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect”
“WHEREAS, One should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason; One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone; the spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word”
After Kitchen accepted the amendment, Zimmerman revealed the second paragraph came from the Satanic Temple website.
“The three sentences that came from a religious, Satanist website were included without objection because they’re so very nearly the same as what the Charter for Compassion already has,” Zimmerman said. “So those are accepted under the excuse that they’re not religious, but they are religious. I think you would insult my Satanist constituents. They say their religion is a religion.”
Dr. Lesa Walker, who founded the Compassionate Austin movement about two years ago and said she worked with Kitchen on the resolution, said she was surprised by Zimmerman’s remarks.
“He was, I think, just trying to make a point about his perspective — which I disagree with — and that was his method of doing it, a shock method of trying to have a hyperbole to demonstrate his perspective,” Walker said. “He was saying up there that he thought it was religious, and then he was countered by Council Member Kitchen that it’s not. And it’s not.”
Toward the end of the half-hour the council spent discussing the resolution, Adler said he was concerned about wasting time.
“While I could read this and maybe have no objections to any of the language, now that it’s been sourced, since this is symbolic, I just don’t want to allow a meme that’s says we added an amendment that the author sourced back to a Satanic website, just because I think it will cloud the overall message of the symbolic measure we are trying to pass,” Adler said.
Council Member Leslie Pool was also taken aback, saying the language of Zimmerman’s amendment “strikes me as having some additional meanings that I am extremely uncomfortable with.”
The council ultimately voted unanimously to strike the Satanic Temple language, with Zimmerman saying that even though there are sure to be a handful of Satanists in his Northwest Austin District 6, he “just can’t represent everybody.”
On its final vote, the council approved the resolution 9-1, with Zimmerman voting no and Council Member Ellen Troxclair temporarily absent from the meeting.
Zimmerman said after the meeting he never meant to pull a “gotcha” moment, as he hadn’t intended for Kitchen to accept his amendment containing the Satanist website language without any debate.
The approved resolution also recognizes April 16-24 as “Earth Week” and calls for Austinites to participate in the Compassion Games during that time. In the games, individuals and teams around the world perform acts of kindness and share their experiences on an online map. Last year, there were 1,336 volunteers in Austin who participated in four such games, Walker said.