When Payson Councilman Dick Wolfe was asked to join the accountability group last year, he barely blinked before declining. To him, the separation between church and state is sacred.
To some of his colleagues, it's "mythical."
The accountability group centers around public officials. There are five members including Mayor Ken Murphy and Councilor Dick Reese, who allegedly meet weekly to hold each other accountable to certain morals.
A one-page mission statement says, "We are not attempting to bring religion into the political arena, nor break the mythical ‘separation of church and state' standard which the Supreme Court has forced on us."
The self-declared "non-religious" group makes 13 references to God and six to Jesus Christ in their statement. They also quote the Christian Bible.
Wolfe said the group seems to be mixing two worlds better left apart.
"The separation of church and state is not mythical by any means," Wolfe said. "It's a major part of our constitution and freedom. I'm a Christian and I go to church, but I believe strongly in keeping religion out of politics."
Wolfe added that the group seems contradictory, particularly because of the line, "The AG has no religious nor political agenda or cause to champion, other than adhering to the commands of Jesus, and through Him the commands of God."
Councilwoman Barbara Brewer said the contradiction is, "a little concerning."
"I haven't been invited and I wouldn't join if I were," Brewer said. "Everybody should be held accountable, but you don't have to be part of a group for that. I don't believe in secret meetings. It sure smells like McCarthyism to me."
Group member Randy Roberson said the meetings are intimate, but not secret.
"Our intention is to keep it small," Roberson said. "But if anyone really wants to take part we would think about letting them in, even if they weren't a public official. Right now our group is private and tightly knit and we mostly want to keep it that way, but we'd help anyone else start their own group."
Other members are local resident Dick Muma, and Mark Chamberlin, pastor of Payson's First Southern Baptist Church. The group meets at various locations each Tuesday.
"I personally would welcome anyone," Roberson said. "I don't necessarily think that Dick Reese and Ken (Murphy) want to bare their souls to just anyone who walks in though."
Murphy did not want to comment on the group. "It's personal and it's private," he said.
The group tries to help each other through struggles, Roberson said.
"As human beings, we do tend to screw up on a regular basis," he said. "With the accountability group, we can share our challenges and hold each other up in prayer. One person may have a struggle with a relationship or a temptation and we want to support them. The idea is to come together in Christian brotherhood."
Reese decided to form the group during the campaign for this, his first term on the town council.
"I thought it would help me if I encouraged men to come together and pray with me and be available to share concerns because this was a new experience....," Reese said. "I thought it would help me to have the privilege of other men to talk to privately and meet with, keeping in mind that as a Christian I have a serious personal commitment to some very high standards, and I want not to risk compromising those."
Roberson added that there are not actual rules. Each member should, however, follow six steps that are outlined on an accountability group handout.
The first says, "Will you identify, in writing to this accountability group, the steps that you are taking to assure that the priorities for your life will be: 1) God first, 2) family second, and 3) your work and civic duties third?"
The handout continues, "the AG is charged with the task of asking those public officials who agree to be held accountable if they are (living by the standards set by Jesus Christ).
It's a Christian organization, Chamberlin said. According to him, "Christianity is not a religion. It's a relationship with Christ, and religion and relationships are two different things. Religion is involved with Christianity, but it's not a religion."
That claim is used when someone wants their faith to seem more legitimate than anyone else's, said Linell Cady, professor of religious studies at Arizona State University.
"That view is intended to imply that all other religions are manmade, but that Christianity is the truth given by God," she added.
Chamberlin said he doesn't care about the academic view of Christianity and that his group can believe whatever they want to.
Payson Councilwoman Judy Buettner agrees.
"They can do what they want to on their own time," she said. "Since they don't bring any of this into the council meetings, I can't be too judgmental. I do think the beliefs they're supposed to be accountable for are pretty ironic though, when you know a couple of the people in the group."
Chamberlin said each member is in their own stage of progression.
"Anyone who's in a highly visible position has certain challenges," he said. "It can go to our heads. We think, ‘That will never happen to us,' but history has proven us wrong. We're not immune to corruption or moral failure."
Buettner said she was not asked to join and said it may be because she is a woman.
That's exactly the reason, Chamberlin confirmed.
"I wouldn't be in an accountability group with a woman and that's nothing against women," he said. "I'll work with the councilwomen on anything, but they wouldn't be comfortable in the group with us. Men don't have enough in common with women for it to work."
He added that non-Christians would also be uncomfortable, but could start their own groups.
"We all need accountability," Chamberlin said. "I need somebody besides myself to ask the tough questions. ‘Am I faithful to my wife? Am I putting enough time into ministry?'"
Buettner said these are questions people can ask themselves.
"I'm already accountable to God and my family and my constituents so I don't need to be accountable to a few men," she said. "If you have to sign papers saying you'll be held accountable to a few other people who can judge you and who have to approve of you, how do you make independent decisions?"
Roberson said each member is free thinking and that the group helps them be better people.
While they want their group to remain small, members promote launching big events, like the mayor's prayer breakfast last month, Roberson said.
"We just want to get faith-based organizations together to help solve social ills that government can't fix," Roberson said. "I know that was Dick (Reese's) focus in starting all this."
Roberson said the group will continue to meet each week.