What do Bethel Church senior pastor Bill Johnson, his wife Beni, their son Brian and their daughter Leah Valenzuela all have in common, besides family lineage?
Well, for starters, all of them are Bethel higher-ups; not just Bill. Beni is also a senior pastor. Brian is the co-founder and president of Bethel Music. Leah Valenzuela is a beloved vocalist and worship leader at Bethel Church. They represent the cream of the crop in Bethel’s nepotistic hierarchy, allegedly hand-picked by God himself to rule over heaven on earth.
What else do Bill, Beni, Brian and Leah have in common?
They all have relatively large social media presences. Bill Johnson’s Instagram page has 233,000 followers. Beni’s has 81,200. Some 233,000 people follow Bethel Music president Brian Johnson. Another 22,000 follow Leah Valenzuela.
It’s no secret that Bethel Church enjoys flirting with the boundary between church and state established by the First Amendment. They’ve publicly lobbied against legislative efforts aimed at ending the harmful practice of conversion therapy, which is still practiced at Bethel today. Bill Johnson publicly endorsed Donald Trump for president, twice. The church has endorsed local and state candidates for public office.
Now Bill, Beni, Brian and Leah have turned their social media might against the state of California’s vaccine mandate for teachers, administrators and employees at public and private schools, which goes into effect Oct. 15.
On their Instagram pages, which collectively reach hundreds of thousands of people, this fearsome foursome has been enthusiastically promoting a walkout of all Shasta County K-12 students and staff on Oct. 18 to protest the state’s vaccine mandate for teachers, administrators and employees.
The protest is designed as a financial shot across the bow of local school districts, which could lose state and federal funding for every student not in the seat come Monday. The financial threat is real, school administrators have informed me. Some parent-protestors have threatened to keep their children home for days, until the vaccine mandate for adults is lifted.
Should the protestors carry out that threat, average daily attendance, ADA, could drop dramatically, which could lead to steep revenue losses in the next budgeting cycle.
It’s not exactly the shot in the arm struggling local school districts have been hoping for.
The Usual Suspects
The protest Bethel Church has apparently joined is being organized by the usual suspects: Elissa “Bullhorn” McEuen and Recall Shasta’s ragtag band of anti-mask, anti-vax America-first fascists, who recently failed in their bid to recall three Republican Shasta County supervisors for allegedly kowtowing to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 directives.
(Whether Recall Shasta has enough signatures to recall District 2 Supervisor Leonard Moty remains to be determined.)
Fresh off that stinging defeat, this band of bucolic blunderers has turned their efforts toward destroying Shasta County’s public school system if the state’s vaccination mandate is not withdrawn.
After homicidally pushing for students to return to school during the entire course of the pandemic, hundreds of local anti-vaxxers gathered twice during the past week to drum up support for pulling students out of the schools, beginning Oct. 18.
There’s an old joke about a man who keeps banging his head against the wall because it feels good when he stops. Collectively, that’s what we’re dealing with here.
Like Gov. Gavin Newsom’s shelter in place order, the vaccine mandate for teachers, administrators and employees is a public health directive that comes from the state, not the Shasta County Board of Supervisors, not Shasta’s County’s multiple school districts, and certainly not the 75 schools serving some 25,000 students in Shasta County this year.
The hang-up with the head-banging scenario is that public health is the wall, and eventually all those blows take their toll. The recallers may have failed in their effort to recall all three supervisors, but fear of an uprising created by their frequent violent threats no doubt influenced the board to emphasize education over actual enforcement of COVID-19 protocols.
Because of this, the recall movement, Carlos Zapata, Vladislav Davidzon, McEuen and all their sycophantic followers, has blood on its hands. Without the movement’s concerted efforts to thwart each and every COVID-19 public health directive during the pandemic, Shasta County wouldn’t be staring at 327 total COVID-19 deaths and 100-plus new cases per day.
Now these dead-end Trumpsters plan to pound their heads against the wall of Shasta County public and private education. To repeat, the COVID public health directive they’re protesting—the vaccine mandate—comes from the state. Their argument is in Sacramento, not Shasta County.
Nevertheless, these folks intend to stage a student and staff walkout next Monday, imperiling a local education system already weakened by the pandemic. With Bethel Church’s mighty social media presence backing them up, that wall might just crack.
From Teacher to Martyr
Every movement needs fresh blood; new martyrs to carry the message. Enterprise High School English teacher Martin Reid stepped into that role last week when his two-page manifesto against the vaccine mandate and in support of the student/staff walkout went viral after being shared by Bethel Church’s fearsome foursome.
“I for one will not stand for this [government] control,” Reid boldly proclaims near the end of his rant. “I will be fired first.”
That pretty much negates Reid’s claim at the beginning of the document that he’s not anti-vax or anti-science. He doesn’t have to quit his job, he could choose to be tested once a week.
But that apparently is a bridge too far for Reid, even though there’s plenty of scientific evidence supporting the need for testing unvaccinated individuals in the school environment, particular during a surging pandemic. The English teacher has apparently chosen not to follow the evidence and instead be removed from his position.
It’s not just a medical issue, it’s a political issue, Reid insists in his manifesto, tipping his conspiratorial hand.
“This mandate is a doorway to more government control in everyone’s personal life,” he contends. “It will impact how Americans make medical decisions, how Americans do business, how Americans travel, and now, whether or not Americans receive an equitable education. If a parent chooses not to get the COVID vaccine for their child they will not receive a public education in California, and if an educator chooses not to get vaccinated, they will be fired.”
There’s a lot to unpack there, so let’s get started.
First of all, as already noted, Reid has a choice in the matter: Instead of being vaccinated, he can choose to be tested once a week. He’s essentially choosing to be fired, which is why he may not qualify for unemployment if he does quit.
Secondly, the idea that a child might not receive an equitable education if the child isn’t vaccinated sounds fairly draconian until you realize that’s been the case for more than a century, as a recent Pew Research report pointed out:
“Republican- and Democratic-led states alike already require hundreds of thousands of their citizens – infants, toddlers and schoolchildren, mostly – to be vaccinated against a panoply of diseases. In fact, mandatory childhood immunizations have been a feature of American society since the 19th century.”
Today, all 50 states mandate vaccinating schoolchildren for diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), polio, measles, rubella and chickenpox.
What happens if they don’t get those vaccinations?
“Typically, children who haven’t received the required shots for their age can’t attend school (public, private or parochial) or enroll in child care programs, though there are exemptions for religious, medical or other reasons,” PEW reports.
Thirdly, the conspiratorial tone Reid takes from the beginning leads not to a reasoned opposition against vaccine mandates but to a paranoid, maudlin discourse on big government and the supposed decline of the American family.
“It should always be the right and responsibility of the parent to make medical decisions with their children because there is no human on earth who loves them like their parents,” he gushes. “Parents pour their blood, sweat and tears into raising their children everyday (sic) and parents are the only humans innately designed to put children first. Not the government. Parents. … Why do we keep giving more power to the government and less power to the parent?”
Reid’s rant isn’t about what constitutes sound medical policy, and most of his “scientific” claims are easily debunked. Complaining about the state’s vaccine mandate for students 12 and up that tentatively goes into effect in July, 2022, he first incorrectly states it applies to all K-12 students, and then suggests vaccination is totally unnecessary because vaccinated people can spread COVID-19 too.
That ignores the fact that according to the Centers for Disease Control, “The greatest risk of transmission is among unvaccinated people who are much more likely to get infected, and therefore transmit the virus.”
Reid claims that more children die from the flu than COVID-19 according to the CDC, but that’s not what the CDC actually says. Fewer children have died from the flu since the coronavirus pandemic hit America in February 2020, in large part because the masking, handwashing and social distancing measures taken for COVID-19 also help prevent the flu.
“Despite COVID-19 prevention measures, data from October 2020 through April 2021 show adolescents were hospitalized for COVID-19 at 2.5 to three times the rate that they were hospitalized for flu during the previous three flu seasons,” the CDC reports.
Meanwhile, CDC data recently crunched by the Children’s Hospital Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics found that between May 21, 2020 and September 20 2021, 520 children and teenagers have died from COVID-19, including 36 deaths in California.
Reid detours into a short unconvincing paragraph on the evils of Big Pharma—the teacher is no doubt an ardent supporter of laissez faire free market capitalism—and then finally gets to what really chaps his hide, the never-ending struggle (for some people) between liberty and government control.
“At the time of our founding in 1776, and since then, no other nation guaranteed such wonderful hope unrestrained hope for the individual to be free,” Reid writes, siding with the mistaken belief that America is an exceptional nation a step above the rest of the world.
“And what are we bartering that precious freedom for?” he continues. “Are we now willing to refuse American children a public education for making a personal medical choice to not get vaccinated?”
Guess what, teach? We are. We’ve been doing it for more than a century.
A Short History of Vaccines and the Constitution
The United States may have been mandating vaccinations for more than a century, but that’s not to say there wasn’t opposition to the practice from the beginning. A fascinating article in the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics notes that vaccination opponents have long exacted retribution on public schools that attempt to mandate inoculations:
“A 1906 news item from York, Pennsylvania, headlined ‘Vaccination Stirs Revolt,’ reported, ‘Threats to burn schoolhouses, whip teachers, and punish school directors have been the outcome of the enforcing of the compulsory vaccination law … Elsewhere during this period, scuffles with the police over compulsory vaccination were common, providing important context when we speak of contemporary ‘resistance’ to vaccination.”
Add to this mix the stunted knowledge of American history shared by many vaccination opponents, including qualified high school English teachers and mega church senior pastors, who yammer on about liberty and freedom as if those were the only items enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
The reality is far more layered and is enumerated right up front in the preamble of that founding document:
“We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
I’ve bolded the above five items because they come before liberty is ever mentioned, by design. My freedom famously ends where your nose begins and takes a backseat to establishing justice, ensuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense and promoting the general welfare, all of which apply to public health measures, including vaccine mandates.
Defenders of “liberty” and “medical freedom” prefer to skip to the end of the preamble rather than acknowledge that the Constitution is a social contract that binds all of us together to promote the common good.
Let’s consider the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause regarding religion. The amendment reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
This article from the U.S. Courts website cites religious opposition to vaccine mandates as the quintessential violation of the establishment clause’s prohibition separating church and state:
“The Free Exercise Clause protects citizens’ right to practice their religion as they please, so long as the practice does not run afoul of a ‘public morals’ or a ‘compelling’ governmental interest. For instance, in Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944), the Supreme Court held that a state could force the inoculation of children whose parents would not allow such action for religious reasons. The Court held that the state had an overriding interest in protecting public health and safety.”
That remains legal precedent today and is not likely to change according to Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University who was recently interviewed by NPR.
“[T]he first vaccine mandate law was enacted in the United States in 1809 for smallpox,” Gostin said. “But the Supreme Court in 1905 in a very famous case called Jacobson v. Massachusetts upheld a Cambridge City law, which required smallpox vaccination. That was something where the Supreme Court said that we don’t have a right to place other people at risk. And by 1922, in another case, Justice Brandeis, writing for unanimous court, upheld childhood school mandates, calling it settled law.”
Asked if the many local, state and private sector vaccine mandates that have been enacted since COVID-19 vaccines became available would withstand court scrutiny, Gostin said, “I think the courts will absolutely support and uphold vaccine mandates, particularly in the private sector, and they also will when states and cities require vaccines.”
But legal precedent and medical science are not likely to sway the anti-vaxxers from their cause, as the AMA’s Journal of Ethics article points out:
“A lesson from the long history of vaccine hesitancy and refusal is that the most strident critics of vaccine safety are unlikely to be swayed by any amount of evidence, particularly evidence produced by government scientists and academic researchers, groups whom they generally distrust.”
Educators Prepare for Protest
According to Martin Reid, the Enterprise High School English teacher, unless all the school boards and superintendents, the Shasta County Office of Education, the principals, the parents, the teachers, the students, and the concerned citizens of Shasta County stand together against government control, “Education in the north state will utterly collapse once these mandates hit.”
He’s stating the problem in reverse. The clear threat to Shasta County’s education system isn’t state mandated COVID-19 precautions, it’s the small but vocal mob of anti-vaccination zealots and their crusade to financially cripple schools that don’t bend to the whims of the minority.
Enterprise High School is in the Shasta Union High School District. SUHSD superintendent Jim Cloney could not say whether Reid will face discipline for distributing his manifesto on the high school’s email system. The district has an “acceptable use” policy for internet activity and works privately with individuals who violate it.
Cloney has taken Monday’s proposed walkout head-on, posting the following note for parents on the district’s website.
“There has been much discussion in our community about a protest regarding the mandates put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic on October 18th,” Cloney writes. “Our schools will be open to serve our students on October 18th. I recognize that it is a well-established right to peacefully protest in our state and country, but we also will fulfill our obligation to serve our students as we do every day of the school year.”
Cloney is being overly kind by referring to the student/staff walkout as a “peaceful protest.” The protestors have specifically stated that pulling students out is designed to financially harm schools that follow the state’s COVID-19 mandates.
“We’re concerned,” Cloney said via telephone. “There’s a lot of concern in the community. Our schools will be open. … We’re not going to know anything until Monday morning.”
A quick survey of local teachers, school employees and parents verified that concern about the walkout is coursing through the education community. People who responded to the survey were granted anonymity due to fears of reprisal, either from employers or social media trolls.
A teacher from the south county with decades of experience thinks participation in the walkout will be limited.
“My take, from a south county district, is that it is/will be just a small group, not the majority,” the teacher said. “I will say, I am appalled at the blatant posting by several outspoken educators in various districts, who are promoting the walkout on their social media pages. They are teachers, nurses, office staff, etc. I personally reached out to my superintendent to let him know that things were blowing up on social media and asked if we had a plan in place or if there was anything I could do to help on the 18th. He didn’t seem to think there would be much involvement.”
One teacher forecasted participation in the walkout would be higher in outlying rural schools.
“In all the tiny surrounding areas, for sure, the teachers are the tail wagging the dog,” the teacher said. “My personal prediction, here’s a list that could be more far more anti-vax than not: Junction, Pacheco, Black Butte, Millville, Bella Vista, East Cottonwood, Evergreen, Columbia, Oak Run, Igo-Ono and French Gulch.”
Another experienced south county teacher is downplaying the protest and hoping for the best.
“In my circle, no one is talking about it,” the teacher said. “I am planning on going to work. The overwhelming feeling at my school is being grateful for a sense of normal. We are having school! In person! That is awesome! Some teachers are vaccinated, including me. Some are not. They get tested regularly. Masks are required, indoors, but they’re not always worn. Strict enforcement varies by teacher.”
SUHSD superintendent Cloney said the district has been working hard to keep in-person classes open five days a week as Shasta County endures its fourth surge of coronavirus, the worst so far.
Students and staff have been infected. Contact tracing has been conducted; students have been quarantined. Mask compliance is good, students who can’t wear a mask have the option of independent study.
Cloney said 70 percent of the certificated staff (teachers and administers) are vaccinated. He said there hasn’t been a rush of employees seeking to meet the vaccine mandate’s Oct. 15 deadline. Again, it must be emphasized that teachers, administers and employees have a choice: get the jab or take a weekly test or lose your job.
Several teachers who responded to the survey expressed concerns that the walkout will only further demoralize short-handed staffs struggling to keep schools open during the pandemic.
“I just found out that all of the support staff at my small public school will be walking out, save for the lead custodian and librarian,” one teacher explained. “We already have a teacher out on a planned vacation that day and our admin (is) out with Covid, so that leaves the rest of us five teachers and a sub to hold down the fort. We have about 100 students, but I’m assuming some will participate and not show up.”
This teacher didn’t have kind words for the protestors.
“I think the people walking out should just quit and not look back. Pull your kids and don’t send them back. Quit your public school job and don’t look back. Otherwise, it just seems like more virtue signaling.”
Several teachers and staff members worried that head administrators aren’t taking the walkout seriously enough.
“We feel totally left in the dark about the 18th,” one teacher said. “I will be going to work to continue to support my students. I get people wanting to have a choice, but school is the one place some of my students get their only 2 meals for the day or affection and a sense of safety. Protesting on a local level does nothing. Drive down to the state capital and protest.”
The suggestion that anti-vaccination protestors should take their fight to Sacramento, where it belongs, was a frequent refrain among the people surveyed. The fight may even be winnable. SB277, the state law that eliminated the religious exemptions for common childhood vaccinations in 2015, contains language that may permit religious exemptions for mandated COVID-19 vaccinations:
“This bill would eliminate the exemption from existing specified immunization requirements based upon personal beliefs, but would allow exemption from future immunization requirements deemed appropriate by the State Department of Public Health for either medical reasons or personal beliefs.”
One parent noted that the protestors are of a kind: right-wing conservatives consumed by the country’s ongoing culture wars who falsely believe Communists, Critical Race Theory and the LGBTQ agenda have captured K-12 public education.
“Some of us parents believe that for the most part the school system is giving our kids a great education,” the parent said. “The only people that seem to be complaining are the ones who think liberals have infiltrated the schools to brainwash our kids or are pissed that their kid has to wear a mask to protect others.
“So, my answer to this problem for any parent or teacher who is fighting to get back to normal is going to be the same answer I was given over and over during this pandemic when I wanted to stay safe.
“Stay home if you’re scared.
“Stay home if you are afraid of the vaccine.
“Stay home if you are afraid of wearing a mask.
“Stay home if you’re afraid of the school system.
“Stay home if you’re afraid of the science behind prevention.
“Just stay home and teach your kids if you want to. The rest of us will happily send our kids and be grateful for the teachers and staff who have risked their lives to educate our children.”
No Response from the Fearsome Foursome or Bethel Church
It’s fair to say at this point that I’ve become a longtime critic of Bethel Church, mainly for its aforementioned flirtations with the First Amendment during the past seven years I’ve lived in Shasta County.
But I’ve given credit where credit’s due. I applauded Bethel’s initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic last year, when it actually shuttered church services.
Imagine that! A church that preaches supernatural healing shuts down because science said so.
My admiration didn’t last long, perhaps no later than July of last year, when Bethel Music musician Sean Feucht held an unmasked super-spreader concert at Sundial Bridge with Bill Johnson’s blessing. By the time 274 COVID-19 cases were connected to the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry last October, Bethel was back to business as usual.
Now, we’ve come full circle, with four Bethel bigwigs, Bill and Beni Johnson, their son Brian Johnson and daughter Leah Valenzuela advocating and participating in a political protest over state vaccine mandates, dragging Bethel Church, it’s 10,000 local members and hundreds of thousands of social media followers into the melee.
Martin Reid’s “I will be fired first” manifesto is dated Oct. 3. It’s not clear when Bill Johnson first posted it on Instagram, but it has since gained 2334 “likes.”
The post ricocheted across the vast horizontal networks linking the charismatic Christians of the New Apostolic Formation around the world, catching the attention of Nathan Finochio, a Canadian pastor of “distilled theology,” worship band leader and friend of Feucht.
The “Jesus H. America” meme above is from Finochio’s Instagram page. Finochio was so impressed with the manifesto shared by Johnson, he felt compelled to reply in extremely large bold type:
“I applaud Bill Johnson for addressing this critical convergence point. This is in line both philosophically and pastorally with the great church doctors of Christian history.”
That reply, with Reid’s manifesto attached, was picked up by Bethel Music president Brian Johnson, who shared it with his 233,000 Instagram followers.
According to my sources, Beni Johnson hasn’t been too active on Instagram lately, but did take time out recently to promote last Monday’s anti-vax roundup at Sundial Bridge. Beni urged her 81,200 followers to follow her daughter, Leah Valenzuela, who’s been riding point locally, posting fairly sophisticated memes promoting the walkout that may be in violation of copyright law.
Not to beat a dead horse, but Bethel’s fearsome foursome have awesome social media reach. Considering their stature, what they say is de facto church policy. According to the Free Exercise Clause, Bethel has a “right to practice their religion as they please, so long as the practice does not run afoul of a ‘public morals’ or a ‘compelling’ governmental interest.”
Bethel Church, by vigorously supporting the student/staff walkout for Shasta County’s K-12 schools on Monday Oct. 18 has indeed run afoul of public morals. These actions are designed to scare local schools into violating the state’s vaccine mandate via the threat of lost future funds.
If the protestors succeed, Shasta County’s public health will be further imperiled. Surely, it’s a compelling interest of the local, state and federal governments to ensure that doesn’t happen.
My email to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the experts on church/state separation issues, has not been returned as of yet (they’re busy people these days). Neither have the questions I emailed to Bethel’s communication’s office, and Bethel elder Julie Winter, the Redding city council woman and nurse practitioner. Here are the questions I sent.
1. Does Bethel Church support the Oct. 18 K-12 staff/student walkout in Shasta County?
2. Is not Mr. Johnson’s support of this political movement a violation of the 1st Amendment’s Establishment Clause?
3. Does Bill Johnson have someone who checks facts on the things he posts?
4. If you claim Bethel Church does not support this local insurrection at our public schools, why do Beni Johnson, Brian Johnson and other higher-up members voice their support for it on their social media accounts? How are everyday church members supposed to know what the policy is?
That last question was designed to deflect Bethel PR’s usual excuse that it has no control over what individual members post on social media.
Perhaps it’s time someone did take control, before Bethel Church’s tax-exempt status is revoked.