PANAMA CITY — A Congressional candidate told local high school and middle school students Tuesday that Islam’s plan is to destroy the American way of life.
“I’m totally against it. If I had my way, it would pretty much be over my dead body,” said Ron McNeil, a candidate for the U.S. House District 2 seat, who was referring to a controversial plan to build an Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero in New York City. “That religion is against everything America stands for. If we have to let them build it, make them build it nine stories underground, so we can walk above it as citizens and Christians.”
Some people in the audience applauded McNeil’s response. However, one student appeared up-set and asked McNeil what gave him or the federal government the right to tell an American that they can’t build an institution.
“This religion’s plan is to destroy our way of life,” McNeil said.
The student responded by saying he did not feel it was a Christian’s place to determine whether Islam is right or wrong.
“It’s our place as Christians to stand up for the word of God and what the Bible says,” McNeil replied.
Dianne Berryhill, an independent candidate for the Congressional seat now held by Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Monticello, also weighed in on the proposed mosque.
“If we were under Muslim law, you girls wouldn’t be sitting here showing any kind of skin. You would be in hot burqas and … you wouldn’t be sitting in school,” she said.
No other candidate weighed in on the controversy during the debate.
The comments came during a forum at North Bay Haven Charter Academy hosted by WJHG News Channel 7. The debate was organized with the help of Tim Kitts, the chief education officer for Bay Haven Schools, but students in all the local high schools, with the exception of New-point Bay, asked the questions.
“The whole idea is that we want children to become informed, knowledgeable citizens,” Kitts said. “They should first know what they believe and why they believe it, and then they can cast their vote.”
Among the other candidates at the forum were Pat Sabiston and Joe Wayne Walker, who are in the running for the School Board District 1 seat, and the three candidates, Jim Barr, Steve Moss and Donna Allen, running for the District 5 school board seat.
Sabiston, who currently holds the District 1 seat, discussed a national model for in-school suspension as a way to discipline students in school and a change in the procedure for purchase orders to save money. Walker expressed the importance of giving children opportunities, even if they don’t want to go to college.
Allen, a longtime school board member, said she found it imperative that school board members be accessible to students and visit schools. Barr, like Allen, finds accountability to students important. Moss addressed the importance of proper nutrition in school lunches, explaining that food has an effect on energy levels, so nutritional food potentially could lead to higher test scores.
In the District 2 Congressional race, McNeil is running against Steve Southerland and David Scholl in the Republican primary. Eddie Hendry and Barbara F. Olschner, both of whom also are running for the District 2 GOP nomination, did not attend. Paul McKain, an independent candidate, and Democrats Boyd and state Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, are also in the running. Boyd and Lawson did not attend. Berryhill is running as an independent.
The Congressional candidates in attendance Tuesday all said they were conservative constitutionalists, and each talked about the importance of self-reliance.
“We can’t depend on the government, but we can depend on ourselves,” Scholl said.
The last candidates to debate were four of the five candidates for the District 4 county commissioner seat: Guy Tunnell, Bill Busch, Dan Estes and Derrell Day. Cathy McClellan did not at-tend.
The candidates discussed their plans to improve tourism and the economy. Several of the candidates said the free market would be the best system to make these improvements, and the government should not get in the way. The topic of legalized gambling in Florida and the possibility of building a casino in the area came up. Although a casino could raise much-needed tax revenue, Day said caution must be taken.
“I’m not really interested in new ways to spend money,” Day said. “Every time we get a lot of tax revenue, we tend to waste it, so we have to be very careful.”
Estes said the ideal thing to do with the extra tax revenue is start paying off debt.
After the debate, Lewis and Kitts talked about the quality of the questions.
“What I got from the candidates is that they have not had questions that have been this thought out,” Kitts said.
One student, who posed several questions, commented on the candidate’s performance.
“A few of the candidates beat around the bush,” said Stuart Hilton, a student at Mosley High School. “For the general questions, like regarding property taxes, they did answer the question. That’s politicians for you.”
The primary election is Aug. 24, although early voting already is under way.