Durham's new county manager supports teaching creationism in public schools, disputes that the separation of church and state is a principle found in the Constitution, and believes that homosexuality is a sin, albeit a forgivable one.
Mike Ruffin, a Rocky Mount native who has been on the job in Durham for less than three weeks, hasn't shared those views with the public. But they are easy to find in the public domain on a Web site he operated until earlier this week and in a column he continues to publish in two North Carolina newspapers.
The Web site, www.devotions.com, had been the core of "Pen Holder Ministries," which Ruffin founded in 1996, four years after he moved from North Carolina to Georgia to take a job as county manager for Spalding County, south of Atlanta. The move coincided with Ruffin's becoming a born-again Christian, and his "writing ministry" began as a way to "help folks deal with everyday problems through good Biblical thinking," he says.
The ministry started with the Web site and a weekly column in the Griffin Daily News in suburban Atlanta, then expanded to include a weekly radio broadcast in Georgia and columns in two North Carolina papers, The Rocky Mount Telegram in Rocky Mount and The Courier-Times in Roxboro.
Ruffin says he told Durham County officials about the newspaper columns before he was hired to take the $125,000-per-year manager's job in October. He says he didn't tell the commissioners about his Web site because "I didn't want it to be an issue."
He also didn't tell them something he'd told Spalding County leaders when he interviewed with them in 1991 for the job in Georgia: "'No longer would I put my professional life first,' I told them," Ruffin wrote in a Dec. 2 column in the Courier-Times that reflected back on his time in Spalding County. "If they hired me, they needed to realize that I was going to put God first in my life, my family second, and my job third."
Ruffin says he's "matured" since then and didn't feel a need to make such a declaration to his prospective employers in Durham. He insists that this religious beliefs won't be an obstacle to his work overseeing county employees and Durham County's $385 million annual budget.
"I'm not a fundamentalist," Ruffin says. "I'm not here to push my personal beliefs on anyone. I will carry out the policies of my board." But after being questioned about his Web site by The Independent on Monday, he says he decided to shut it down because "I'd hate for anyone to be offended by anything I said."
At press time, the Web site was still up, although the index to previous "devotions" was no longer on the page. Scrolling through that index last week showed the majority of Ruffin's writings focus on personal growth, rather than political issues. Many stress themes of tolerance and acceptance while sticking close to Biblical teachings.
But other selections are likely to raise eyebrows, including:
An Aug. 15, 1998 column titled "Politics and Religion Should Mix" that states, "In spite of what the world may say about the dangers of mixing politics and religion, there isn't a better place for a Christian to put his faith into practice than politics. Such conduct may raise questions among political pundits. But God sure likes it."
An Oct. 9, 1999 column titled "Children Should Not Have Access to Internet Pornography" that urges parents to pressure public libraries to install filters on Internet software. "It's about time we stopped worrying about what the American Civil Liberties Union might do if our community takes a stand against pornography at the public library and worry about what God might do if we don't."
An Aug. 5, 1998 column called "The Christian Response to Homosexuality" that urges Christians to "reach out to the homosexual, just like we reach out to the adulterer, the alcoholic, or the drug addict."
A June 10, 2000 column called "Read the Newspaper for the Facts, the Bible for the Truth" that says most Americans "don't believe the evolution lie" and asks, "Ever wonder why we've never seen an editorial defending creationism in our newspaper? The truth is evolution is politically correct thinking and creationism is not."
When confronted with these statements, Ruffin says he has no plans to push for Internet filters for Durham County Library computers or policies requiring that creationism be taught in local public schools. He says the library he wrote about in Georgia did not adequately supervise children who were using computers--a situation he hasn't found to be true at the Durham library. As for what's taught in public schools, "I don't have anything to do with curriculum as the county manager," Ruffin says. "My mission is to help the schools find more funding."
He also insists that he will be comfortable working with gays and other members of Durham's diverse community. "I am not narrow minded," Ruffin says. "My views will not get in the way of my working with people who think differently from me."
MaryAnn Black, chair of the Durham Board of Commissioners, says county leaders were aware of Ruffin's religious writings when they voted unanimously to hire him in October. At the time, Black says, commissioners had read a few of Ruffin's columns--though not the ones discussing homosexuality or creationism. They questioned him carefully about his views and made calls to colleagues in Spalding County to see whether Ruffin had ever had a problem setting boundaries between his private thoughts and public duties.
"They told us that had never been an issue," Black says. "Mike said he would be able to keep those things separate--that his religion was his private life. We asked him not to publish anything in the Triangle and he agreed not to do that. He said his articles were more suited to a small-town venue anyway."
Does the fact that Ruffin didn't mention his Web site or some of his more controversial opinions concern her?
"I am going to take him at his word that this won't be an issue," Black says. "My approach will be to give him an opportunity to manage this county. If ever I feel or think there is an issue where those boundaries are not respected, I will address it with him."
Ruffin was not the commissioners' first choice to fill the position left open since March, when former Durham County Manager David Thompson left for a job in the private sector. He was selected after several initial finalists withdrew. Black says the now-rejected push for a referendum on merging city and county government helped discourage some people from applying for the manager's job.
At a welcoming ceremony for Ruffin held at the Museum of Life and Science Dec. 11, Black stressed that county officials had worked hard to find someone who would be a "good match" for Durham. For his part, Ruffin told the crowd of county employees, public officials and nonprofit leaders that he had also done his homework before choosing the Bull City. "I embrace diversity," he said. "I think the fact that everyone doesn't have the same spin on everything here is a good thing."
Ruffin hopes that diversity will work in his favor when people find out about his religious opinions. "This will be a test of how diverse Durham is," he says. "If people can tolerate me."