Facebook posts made and shared by China’s new town manager might raise questions about whether he can separate his religious views and beliefs from his work as a municipal official, but members of the town’s Select Board, which was unanimous in selecting him, were impressed with his background and skills.

Over the years, Dennis Heath, a 58-year-old pastor and career Air Force veteran, has made opinionated posts about women, homosexuals and Islam and shared articles from websites known to spread conspiracy theories and false news.

Heath started his role in China at the beginning of June after the retirement of longtime Town Manager Dan L’Heureux. In the past, Heath served part time as an administrator for Stonewall, Oklahoma — a town of only 500 that Heath said was named after Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

In his former position, he felt he could express himself freely, Heath said during an interview with the Morning Sentinel. In Maine, he said, he realizes he has to be more careful about what he posts on social media.

During his time in Stonewall, Heath shared articles and posts that stated he supported “traditional marriage.” After the Supreme Court’s decision in the case that legalized same-sex marriage, Heath shared an article in 2015 from The Blaze, conservative Glenn Beck’s television, radio and internet network, about the Texas attorney general declaring that local clerks could defy the ruling and deny marriage licenses to those couples. Accompanying the article, Heath wrote, “I would that all states follow suit. We can stand firm in our adherence to godly living against the tide of evil.”

When asked if he would allow a clerk to deny a same-sex couple a marriage license because of the clerk’s religious beliefs, Heath said he would not.

“The way it is now, I couldn’t do that and I wouldn’t do that,” he said Thursday from his office at the Town Office. “What I was essentially saying in respect to this whole thing is that the decision about what constitutes marriage legally is not something that the Constitution confers on the federal government or the judiciary; otherwise, it would have been included in the Constitution. It’s my opinion that it should be a decision that should be made by the states through their constitutions.”

He said, however, it is his religious belief that same-sex marriage is contrary to the Bible, but the fact that he has a religious belief that’s different does not give him the ability to override the law.

He said if residents who identify as gay wanted to have a conversation about the topic solely in regard to religious belief, he said he would be truthful with them.

“My understanding of what the Bible says is that (same-sex marriage) constitutes evil,” he said. “I interpret evil as anything contrary to the righteousness that God has. If I think something that is contrary to what’s acceptable, that’s an evil thought. I would not use that to denigrate somebody because they have concluded that kind of a lifestyle is OK for them. I wouldn’t to their face denigrate them.”

Also in 2015, Heath shared posts from other users disparaging the Muslim faith. One post that Heath shared showed a picture of a billboard that read, “Everything I ever needed to learn about Islam, I learned in five minutes on 9/11/2001.”

Heath said those were the words of someone else that he shared.

“Essentially, that’s me saying, ‘I can see that.'”

In the three years since he shared the post, he said he has learned more about the religion of Islam after taking religious studies courses at Randall University — a Free Will Baptist college in Moore, Oklahoma.

“What I’ve learned is that much like our own religious practices in this country with Protestants and Catholics, you have those that have a very strict adherence,” he said. “There are some people who practice strict adherence to Islamic practices and interpret what the Quran says that would cause them to do something like on 9/11. I would say that that group is not representative of all Islam.”

He said today he would revise the post to say “radical Islam,” which he defined as “Islamists who feel that the only way to keep (the religion) going is to engage in destructive activities like that.”

In 2017, Heath posted a poem that nostalgically describes a more “traditional” era. The poem recalled a time when “the men went to work not the wife” and when “the Wife was content with her lot.”

When asked what the post meant by women being “content with her lot,” Heath said it harkens back to his firmly held religious views.

“Within the family it’s not the responsibility of the wife to support the family. It’s the man’s responsibility,” he said. “Biblically … the husband is responsible for taking care of his family. But then you can still look in the Bible, and look in the book of Proverbs, and it says the most Godly of women are the ones that rise up early in morning and take care of their family but can also go out and purchase a field and engage in business.”

He said he would never say that a woman should not work or could not work, but he said God does not expect women to work.

“I would say God does expect men to work and take care of their families and not the other way around.”

In the past, Heath also shared articles from websites such as Conservative Tribune and American News Hub, which are known to spread conspiracy theories and false news.

In 2017, Heath shared a story claiming that a supposed body language expert could determine that a woman who accused then-Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate from Alabama, Roy Moore, of sexual misconduct was lying based on her body language. Another, from 2017, claimed that Khizr Khan, the father of a U.S. Army captain who died in the Iraq War, was part of the Muslim Brotherhood after he spoke at the Democratic National Convention.

In regard to these articles, Heath said as of late he has shared fewer stories of that nature.

“One of the things that I saw during the election season and has been confirmed is that there was an awful lot of fake stuff to try to influence people,” he said. More recently, Heath said, he has made posts saying, “Hey, we need to check to be sure that it’s accurate.”

Those posts did not show up during a review of his Facebook page.

When asked if he felt a responsibility as a town official to share information that is accurate, Heath said he is going to be more careful in what he posts to Facebook.

“I realize that I could say something that could be construed as representing an official position, and I don’t ever want to come across that way,” he said. “Unfortunately, when you’re posting something on social media, they’re going to run with it and represent it however they want to represent it.”

SELECT BOARD REACTS

Neil Farrington, a member of the China Select Board, which interviewed and selected Heath as the next town manager, said that you could find dirt on anyone if you dug hard enough.

“I’ve seen it a lot in the media recently that having any opinion at all puts you in a difficult situation,” he said.

Farrington said the board ran a Google search on Heath but did not review his Facebook page during the hiring process. Farrington added that he knew Heath had a strong religious faith, and, at some point, scrutinizing Facebook posts becomes an issue of freedom of speech.

“We could have found something on any of the 30 applicants if you looked hard enough,” he said.

Farrington said so far Heath has not imposed his values on any of the workers in the Town Office.

Select Board member Irene Belanger said she was not aware of Heath’s Facebook posts. She said she did not want to comment on the posts, as she had not read them herself.

Belanger said the board members had approved Heath unanimously to take the helm in China because they were impressed by his performance during his two interviews.

“I can tell you he has a good background in grant writing and he is extremely good with the numbers,” she said, adding that he has shown that he is a good problem solver during his first two months on the job.

Belanger said that she had been looking for someone who was compassionate, and she said Heath came across as a compassionate person during their conversations.

Robert McFarland, the board’s chairman, and member Donna Mills-Stevens did not return messages requesting comment about the board’s decision to hire Heath. A phone number for Jeffrey LaVerdiere was not listed.

HEATH’S BACKGROUND

Heath grew up in a military family moving from place to place to follow his father’s postings in the Air Force. He was born in Oklahoma, which is where his mother’s family lived. From there he spent only a few years at a time in any given place. He graduated from high school in Orlando, Florida, and immediately entered the Air Force.

He started off as a telecommunications systems control specialist and also started working with computers in the early ’80s. He remained in the Air Force for 25 years and retired in 2003 while he was working at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. He spent an additional year working for the Department of Defense during the Bush administration. But he decided to put his career on hold when his father’s health began to fail, which took him and his wife, Mary, to Oklahoma.

“I intended to be mostly retired when we got there so I could focus on taking care of my parents,” he said. But he said his mother put his name out to the people of Stonewall as a volunteer to help out in municipal activities, which led him to become the president of the local Chamber of Commerce.

He became the pastor at the Stonewall Free Will Baptist Church — a job that started as a temporary favor and lasted for 14 years.

From there, the mayor recruited him to help the town create a budget, which Heath said they had never done before, even though it was required by law.

Heath also became the town’s first-ever municipal judge. In Oklahoma, judges in municipal courts are not required to be attorneys or have formal legal training.

“The judge can either be a practicing attorney or a citizen of good moral character,” he said. “So that’s where I met the standard.”

The court was not one of record, meaning proceedings are not captured and preserved. Heath said he dealt with town ordinance violations, including traffic violations, petty theft, assault and battery, and drunk and disorderly conduct. He said he also dealt with a couple of drug charges.

“You can have a jury; fortunately, in my two and a half years, I never had to call a jury together,” he said. “Everyone asked for a bench trial. I never had a decision appealed.”

After his stint as a judge, Heath was asked to become a part-time administrator for the town.

During his tenure, Heath said he started a catalyst project to revitalize Stonewall’s Main Street, which included refurbishing an old bank building that has since become the Town Hall. Additionally, he revamped the sewer system and water treatment plant and left the town with a surplus of a little over $100,000, after it had been in debt when he started working with its finances.

A town clerk who worked with Heath in Stonewall was arrested recently on a charge of embezzling about $16,927 as a result of a state audit investigation, which Heath said he had recommended as a course of action after discovering “indicators that were of concern.”

Stonewall’s mayor, William Nichols, said in a phone call Friday that Heath did a good job on a number of projects over the years.

“We were disappointed that he left, but there’s no ill will there,” he said.

Heath and his wife decided to leave Oklahoma to be closer to their two sons and grandchildren, who now live in Wilton.

As for his vision for China, Heath said he wants to follow through on establishing a community center where large groups can gather and socialize. He thinks this might help bridge a separation he perceives between “the lake dwellers and the farmers.”

“I want to see if we can do something to bridge that to make sure people know that they’re all a part of China,” he said.

Heath said his own religious views and beliefs will not get in the way of running town business.

“My job is to take care of all of the people in the community regardless of where they are socially, where they are financially, politically or whatever. I have to make sure everyone is being properly served,” he said. “I’m hopeful that I’ve been coming across that way and I continue to come across that way.”

Emily Higginbotham — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @EmilyHigg

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