A church in Front Royal plans to host a forum tonight for candidates running for local offices in this year’s election.

St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church invited candidates seeking seats on the Warren County School Board and a place on the Front Royal Town Council. The church did not invite candidates running for seats on the Board of Supervisors because those races are partisan.

Church member Thomas McFadden Sr. spoke by phone Thursday about the forum. The church initially restricted attendance to parishioners and their families because of the basement hall’s limited space, McFadden explained. The hall can fit only a few hundred people and the church must hold multiple services to accommodate its more than 1,000 parishioners. Organizers did not open the forum to the public or the media.

However, a few hours later on Thursday afternoon, the Catholic Diocese of Arlington said in an email to The Daily that the church would open the forum to the public and the media. The forum takes place at 7 p.m. at the church, 120 W. Main St.

“We have special interests as Catholics that we want to talk to candidates about,” McFadden said in a phone interview. “This is primarily about Catholic interests.”

The Catholic Diocese of Arlington requires its churches follow rules and procedures when holding political events such as a candidate forum, McFadden said. For example, the church must invite all candidates running in non-partisan elections, he said. Churches also must submit questions for the candidates in advance for approval. The diocese also reviews the forum format.

“In other words, it has to be perfectly, perfectly fair, and we complied with that,” said McFadden, whose son, Joseph E. McFadden, serves on the Front Royal Town Council.

The diocese also required the church to find a moderator who does not live in Warren County. Organizers recruited a Winchester resident to serve as moderator, McFadden said.

“Our questions are going to be of Catholic-interest — period,” McFadden said.

An example of a topic that is of Catholic-interest is gender identity as it relates to public schools, McFadden said.

The announcement about the forum in the church’s newsletter states that candidates for the Town Council and the School Board “accepted the invitation to come before our faith community and try to win our vote.”

The following candidates will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot for three School Board seats: Andrea M. Lo for the Fork District; Antoinette D. Funk and Stephanie J. Short for the Happy Creek District; and Angela Clark Robinson and Melanie C. Sims for the North River District. Amber Faith Morris and H. Bruce Rappaport appear on the ballot for a seat on the Front Royal Town Council.

Lo initially accepted the invitation but then notified the church by email on Wednesday that she decided not to participate, McFadden said.

Lo states in an email to McFadden, provided to the Daily, her reasons for declining to participate in the forum.

“When I accepted your invitation, I assumed this was going to be a neutral forum in which candidates could present their views and the audience could draw their own conclusions,” Lo states. “However, it has come to my attention that the announcement of the forum included heavily opinionated statements such as ‘the public schools consume over half of the County’s budget which is your tax money for which you may receive nothing in return.’”

Lo goes on to state: “I believe quite strongly that public education can be a powerful positive force for the community, and I do not agree with the implication that only families with children attending public school benefit from these expenditures. I have dedicated my career to education because I think it is important to the economic and political health of our nation. Someone who doesn’t believe our schools are important to our community as a whole should not be running for school board at all, in my opinion.”

Lo states she learned of the forum’s characterization two days before the event.

The newsletter's announcement spells out the reasons for the church holding the event and encourages members to attend.

“As the largest faith community in Warren County, good government is up to us,” the newsletter states. “Electing pro-parent members to the school board is necessary to protect our community’s children from radical policies."

The Arlington diocese confirmed that the Front Royal church plans to host the forum for the non-partisan, local offices. Director of Media Relations Amber Roseboom wrote in an email Thursday that the organizers coordinated the event with the Virginia Catholic Conference to ensure the forum complies with the law and follows the guidance provided to the parish.

“Forums such as this are not unique,” Roseboom states in her email. “Our Catholic faith compels us to engage in the public square, and churches of all faiths are legally permitted to engage in political activity that is non-partisan.”

Roseboom also states that the church has since changed the forum attendance policy and opened the event to the public and the media.

“While there were some initial concerns about space and the ability to accommodate the larger community, the parish has made the event open to the public and the media,” Roseboom’s email states. “They look forward to a civil discussion on issues of importance to all involved.”

– Contact Alex Bridges at abridges@nvdaily.com