It started with a request from Heba Mohammad for Green Bay, Wisconsin, to provide free transportation for voters on Election Day (Nov. 4).
The recent University of Wisconsin-Green Bay graduate, who is also the founder of the Muslim Student Association (MSA), emailed Alderman Chris Wery (pictured above) asking why the city bus service is not free during elections.
While the city councilman agreed to consider her request, he then went on to ask Mohammad about her involvement in starting a Muslim group at her college.
"I just want to be assured that your group in no way promotes or defends militant Islamic ideology," Wery wrote, asking whether Mohammad and the association condemn "terrorist groups such as Hamas."
Offended by Wery’s response, Mohammad refused to answer his questions and then posted the exchange on the Internet that, predictably, set off a scorching round of criticism. Many users accused the councilman of bigotry and religious profiling.
Mohammad believes Wery developed an "instant suspicion" because of her Muslim name.
"That's kind of hurtful, to be honest," she was quoted in USA Today.
Shortly after the email exchange went viral, Wery admitted his remarks were inappropriate and poorly timed.
"I phrased it wrong. It was the wrong setting," he said. "And I apologized for that."
However, when some people started suggesting Wery resign – with a petition on Change.org calling on the councilman to step down – the councilman called his line of questioning to Mohammad "legitimate."
In a statement provided to the Green Bay Press Gazette, Wery said he would not step down from the city council.
“I see no reason to resign. I asked a legitimate question, albeit in the wrong forum as it should have been a separate communication. MSA's have been an issue around the country and I wanted to know, from the founder herself, the goals of her chapter.”
Reminding how he was one of the majority members who voted to allow a mosque on Velp Avenue despite cries to stop it, Wery added:
“I believe in both freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Being elected does not mean I lose my freedom of speech.”
As for the possibility of free city buses for Election Day, Wery says he is still working on it.