By Chad Nance
With additional research by Carissa Joines
As CCD reported on Tuesday, Salem Baptist Christian School’s Secondary Principal and former appointed County Commissioner Mark Baker had taken it upon himself to ask Rep. Debra Conrad to introduce HB139, a bill which would allow staff of certain private schools to carry concealed handguns. The bill was filed on Tuesday, March 3rd, and as of Wednesday had passed its first reading. It is currently with the Judiciary Committee.
The primary sponsors on the bill are Conrad and Rep Donny Lambeth (R-75), who are both from Forsyth County, but the bill has picked up 3 additional sponsors from outside of the county, Reps Carl Ford (R-76), Bert Jones (R-65), and Allen McNeill (R-78). While Conrad’s office has reported that the bill is not active, the bill is not dead, since procedure requires that the bill is viable until the end of the session. Clark Riemer, Conrad’s legislative assistant, told CCD that “My understanding is that [Conrad] will ask the Chairman to not bring it up in committee.”
This incident may only scratch the surface of the intersection of partisan politics and Salem Baptist Church’s internal politics. After CCD ran our initial story, a former member of Salem Baptist approached us explaining how the church had gone from being an apolitical house of God to a church heavily involved in the most extreme conservative of partisan politics. This included the Pastor’s wife appearing in two pieces of campaign video, both of which included outright falsehoods, for Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC). Pastor Wilburn’s wife, Judy Ellison Wilburn, was in the videos representing her position as a teacher of 20+ years, most recently as a high school Exceptional Children’s division teacher in Yadkin County. Interestingly, Judy Wilburn was arrested on February 9th 2015 and charged with assaulting one of her students who has a disability and obstructing justice.
According to sources who are alumni of Salem Baptist Christian School and former members of the church, this turn toward partisan political involvement came with the arrival of pastor Howard Wilburn in 2000. This partisan politicking included the appointment to the County Commission of Mark Baker by the Forsyth County Republican Executive Committee. Baker was rejected by Republican voters in the 2014 primary, opening the way for moderate Republican Dr. Don Martin to win in November.
Judy Wilburn was involved in the 2014 election cycle as well. She appeared in one Tillis campaign video posted on YouTube by the PAC Carolina Rising. This PAC is part of a shady network of both Republican and Democratic organizations who spend vast sums of money on campaign propaganda yet are not required to reveal where they get their funding from. Judy Wilburn also appeared in a thirty second commercial for the PAC, making unverifiable claims that Tillis and Governor Pat McCrory had done a great deal for public education in North Carolina. Wilburn gives no specific ways that the politicians have helped the schools, rather she relies on her career as a teacher to build veracity.
This was just 5 months before February 9th 2015. On that day Mrs. Wilburn was arrested by the Yadkin County Sheriff’s Office and charged with one misdemeanor count of assault on a handicapped person and one felony count of common law obstruction of justice for allegedly deleting incriminating statements connected to the case. She was suspended with pay at that time, and released from custody on a $5000 unsecured bond. Mrs. Wilburn has a court date of April 21st, 2015 in Yadkin County where she will face charges for assaulting one of her students. A call to the school system to determine the status of her position there was not returned.
Partisan, right-wing politics have certainly moved to the forefront at Salem Baptist Church and Christian School. Unlike many other politically involved churches, they have chosen to take up the issue of guns in schools rather than Abortion and Anti-gay bigotry.
The actions of Wilburn and Baker may not represent the church or the school as a whole. According to a former church insider, Baker has been trying to push Headmaster Martha Drake out for some time. Ms. Drake has ties to the earlier teachings and positions of Salem Baptist and the school when politics were not on the menu. She is a former teacher at the school and her father, Donald K. Drake, was the President of the SBC associated Piedmont International University until 1987 when he was succeeded by the church’s current pastor, Dr. Howard Wilburn.
On Tuesday Ms. Drake told CCD emphatically that they did not want guns in the school and that Mark Baker does not speak for Salem Christian School in any way. Ms. Drake maintained that Baker does not represent the school and his political inclinations and opinions are his own.
Baker has floated a theory that SBCS can’t afford a guard and must arm a staffer. Baker did not seem to realize that since Salem Baptist Christian School accepts state money (vouchers) they would have been ineligible to take advantage of the law no matter what had happened, since the bill directly states that it would only apply to private schools funded exclusively by private money.
Whether at the urging of Baker, who has stirred up a wave of complaints directed at his employer, or due to the media storm rising over the issue, Rep. Conrad has signaled that the bill is “in neutral” for now. Considering the history of the legislation, the internal politics at Salem Baptist Christian School, and the multiple versions of how the guns for private schools law came to be, it is doubtful HB139 will ever again see the light of day. Additionally, since the bill is a local act only affecting Forsyth county, it is unlikely that the bill would move further without the support of the local representatives, and Reps Terry and Hanes have not signed on to the bill or indicated their support.
You can read CCD’s initial coverage of this story HERE.