Can a Sheriff’s Vehicle Have a Jesus Fish On It?

Kate and her mother were driving through Atlanta, Georgia when they saw a local sheriff’s van next to them on the highway.

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More surprisingly, the van had the Ichthys symbol — better known as a Jesus Fish — on the back.

sheriffcloseup

Is that legal?

I contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation. They’re on top of it.

  • J Myers

    No! Citizen’s arrest!

  • Jason Sexton

    You know they’ll claim they bought it at an auction at a mason’s lodge and it came with the little fishy on it. They also claim that they didn’t realize that it would offend anyone if they just happened to keep it on there.

  • natheist

    i concur with Mr J Myers.

  • Deb

    what if it was a darwin fish or co-exist bumper sticker?

  • mspeir

    Can a Sheriff’s Vehicle Have a Jesus Fish On It?

    That one does.

  • Brian A

    I don’t know if it is legal or not to display the fish, but it sure could be used by a good lawyer as an argument for bias. Suppose a non-christian is arrested, it would be easy enough to claim that the arrest was made due to prejudice against non-christians. I would bet that if it were a ‘Darwin fish’ there would be an outcry to get it removed.

  • http://t3knomanser.livejournal.com t3knomanser

    I would argue that it’s utterly inappropriate to display any personal elements on the exterior of the vehicle. Should an official vehicle have a bumpersticker that reads, “This delinquent had sex with your honor student”? Or, in better taste, a “I’m proud of my honor student”?

    It’s a company car, not your personal vehicle.

  • Siamang

    what if it was a darwin fish or co-exist bumper sticker?

    same deal… not cool.

  • Jonas

    I’m going with the principle that’s it’s a company car, not the individual sheriff’s personal vehicle. — As such, personal expressions religious or not are inappropriate.

    That should be the argument the FFRF takes, not just because it is religious in nature.

    Further the town paid for the vehicle, and it is maintained by the town (gas, upkeep, oil, …) More reasons the symbol is inappropriate.

  • Priscilla a.k.a. Kate’s mom

    Deb, it was definitely NOT a co-exist sticker. Check out the picture. It was the fish.

  • Charon

    Jonas, I disagree. I agree on the point that personal expression on non-personal vehicles is inappropriate, but that’s completely different from unconstitutional. You’re not going to get much traction in a court if you’re suing based on sheriff departmental policy.

    It’s precisely the fact that it is religious that is the big deal, and makes it actually illegal (and unconstitutional). (Same would go for an anti-religious sticker, of course. This is obvious, but there will always be religious people who think they’re being clever by bringing this up. Sorry, no, we’re not actually hypocrites.)

  • Richard Wade

    Ichthys, Darwin fish, Georgia Bulldogs license plate frame, McCain ’08 or Obama ’08 bumper stickers, Mary Kay Cosmetics sign in the window, these are all inappropriate for a Sheriff’s vehicle. If the sheriff wants to decorate the back of his van, he should use something that is totally appropriate for Atlanta Georgia:

    Naked woman silhouette mudflaps and a stainless steel scrotum hanging from the bumper.

  • http://superstitionfree.blogspot.com Robert Madewell

    I agree, it’s a government car. There should be no personalization. However, I’m not offended by the symbol. It’s so common, I probably would have missed it.

  • Sock

    sigh.

    Yet again, my state is in the blogs.

    Why can’t something happen in GA that the atheist community would applaud?

  • Richard Wade

    Sock, don’t feel too bad. Even my “progressive” state of California has had several religious bonehead news stories lately, including (ugh) Prop 8.

    Persevere.

  • Jen

    I find my road rage is moreso when the jackass in front of me has irritating bumper stickers. I fear that if the jackass with the irritating bumper sticker was a cop, my head would explode since I couldn’t express my opinion that they irritate me.

    I think the real question here is what if it was a bumper sticker that said “Praise Allah!”? If the answer is different for the Muslim thought and the Christian fish, you might be a little bit xenophobic!

  • http://www.secularplanet.org Secular Planet

    What about a sexist prayer on town police force website?

    http://www.orangeparkpolice.com/

    Note that it’s the SECOND link on the left, above any useful information. And ugly HTML should be illegal, too.

  • CybrgnX

    I like the fish there or even the KKK or what ever. It anounces what to expect from the bone-head. As an athiest the 1st thing out my mouth if he stopped me whould be ‘praise Jesus-how can I help you offica’. Cowardly???You Bet!!! cuz when it comes to the law make them happy cuz they got the power. And I aint got none.

  • Aj

    Deb,

    what if it was a darwin fish or co-exist bumper sticker?

    Darwinian evolution by natural selection isn’t a religious statement, or political one, it’s a fact supported by masses of evidence. Co-exist is pretty vague, but I think it’s a political statement. So it’s up to the authority incharge of the vehicles whether the evolution fish or co-exist signs are on vehicles. An argument can be made that police officers should present themselves as politically neutral, but as far as scientific views, they better follow the facts.

  • weaves

    Personally, it’s such a small statement of faith, and hardly trashy looking…I don’t see it as much different from a person wearing a cross.

    On the other hand… it is a work vehicle.

  • Jonas

    @Secular Planet: re Policeman’s Prayer, I suspect this was developed when more men were cops, than women.

    Mass Fireman have a similar prayer:

    http://www.masshome.com/firememorial.html

    A Fireman’s Prayer

    When I am called to duty, Lord, wherever flames may rage, Give me strength to save a life, whatever be its age.

    Help me embrace a little child before it is too late, Or save an older person from the horror of that fate.

    Enable me to be alert and hear the weakest shout, And quickly and efficiently to put the fire out.
    I want to heed my calling and give the best in me, To guard my every neighbor and protect his property.
    And if according to your will, I am to lose my life, Please bless with your protecting hand

    my children and my wife.

    AMEN.
    Course now it could apply to lesbian fireladies. :)

    I’m not particularly offended, personally, by the prayer, though if I were on the force, I wouldn’t want to be ordered to pray.

  • atomjack

    Yes, it CAN, obviously. SHOULD it, NO. The Founding Fathers founded this country on Freedom of Religion, based on the knowledge of the persecution of peculiar religious sects (Puritans, in particular). Too bad they didn’t take it all the way to Freedom FROM Religion. How would they know where it could lead? Yeah, I’ve read the buy-bull, too, but DAMN, people, ya just can’t predict the future, Nostradamus notwithstanding. :rolleyes:

  • Matto the Hun

    If the sheriff wants to decorate the back of his van, he should use something that is totally appropriate for Atlanta Georgia:

    Sadly it is appropriate for GA.

    Yet again, my state is in the blogs.

    Why can’t something happen in GA that the atheist community would applaud?

    Sorry Sock, never gonna happen, well, not in our life time at any rate. We can’t even get the damn state liqueur laws changed because of the Christian gestapo.

    If the economy was better my wife and I would sell our place and leave this state. At the very least we just try to stay in midtown ATL which we can do very well.

    But back to the cop with the Jebus Fish. If any legal challenge can up, you know the local news will be playing the Christian ‘persecution’ song.

    And we’ll be the bad guys, like always.

  • Eliza

    In states which develop religious-themed license plates, would/could government vehicles use those plates? (State, county, city, & township vehicles. Dogcatcher. Sheriff. Etc.)

  • http://atheistgravy.blogspot.com revatheist

    If you notice, the vehicle license plate starts with “GV” denoting that it is indeed a government vehicle, not the sheriff’s private vehicle. Being government property, it is definately unconstitutional to put the fish on it unless the sheriff is willing to allow any and all religious groups to stick a symbol on. This is really no different than the christman creche issues where religious displays are not allowed on government property unless all religions have equal access. If vehicles were exempt as “govenment property” then every christmas we’d start seeing baby jesus and friends tied on top of the sheriff’s disco lights! :)

  • Bible Belt Non-Believer

    Unfortunately, I live in the county this vehicle belongs to! In our area we have to endure Christian dominance and ignorance. I sincerely hope the Freedom From Religion Foundation will be able to effect the removal of the symbol from this government vehicle and any other so afflicted.

  • http://darwinsdagger.blogspot.com Darwin’s Dagger

    No, it shouldn’t. But all your going to do by making them remove it is to stir up more anti-atheist sentiment. Personally, I think there are more important battles to fight, than removing that stupid Fish from the back of Sheriff Bubba’s truck.

  • http://hoverFrog.wordpress.com hoverFrog

    I’m sorry but I think everyone here is missing the point. The icthyus is not a statement of religious affiliation but a form of protection. As a police vehicle it is possible that the officer might come under fire from the minions of Satan. The icthyus therefore acts as protection from the Devil’s bullets just as much as bullet proof glass does, only cheaper. It’s a safety issue.

    /sarcasm

  • Luther

    Personally, it’s such a small statement of faith, and hardly trashy looking…I don’t see it as much different from a person wearing a cross.

    No problem if the Sheriff wants to wear the cross inside their shirt. But this is the equivalent of pinning a cross right below a badge, or a sticker saying “Contribute to the Police Benevolent Society”.

  • http://universalheretic.wordpress.com/ Victor

    Well, is it the Sheriff’s personal vehicle? Or does it belong to the government? I’m guessing the vehicle is not his, therefore, he does not have the right to use it as his own personal religious billboard. Case closed.

  • AJ

    Soapbox: I’d be nice if, just once, I could see something on this site concerning a southern state without reading prejudiced verbal attacks on said state.

    On topic: I’m not sure this is illegal. It certainly isn’t a violation of the first amendment, as Congress has not passed a law in this situation. However, I understand that more broad interpretations have been taken by Supreme Courts (state and/or federal).

  • TXatheist

    AJ, I posted something last week about TX doing something good. And I’m sure there is a police code that says emblems on vehicles must adhere to a standard which is where this whole thing gets shady. May I ask if you are familiar with the “Lemon Test” as Congress doesn’t have to pass a law for it to be illegal.

  • Mike

    AJ> I’d be nice if, just once, I could see
    AJ> something on this site concerning a
    AJ> southern state without reading prejudiced
    AJ> verbal attacks on said state.

    They’re not being PREjudged; they’re being judged by their public actions.

  • Vincent

    Personally, it’s such a small statement of faith, and hardly trashy looking…I don’t see it as much different from a person wearing a cross.

    True, and that would be equally inappropriate worn on the uniform (unless he’s a chaplain maybe, though I think that too is unconstitutional).

  • Polly

    We have bigger fish to fry, IMO. (Pun intended.)

  • Richard Wade

    Polly, we may have bigger fish to fry, we being people who don’t live under the authority of that sheriff, but I can understand how people like Bible Belt Non-Believer, who commented above feels:

    Unfortunately, I live in the county this vehicle belongs to! In our area we have to endure Christian dominance and ignorance. I sincerely hope the Freedom From Religion Foundation will be able to effect the removal of the symbol from this government vehicle and any other so afflicted.

    This little fish to fry could be the beginning of relief from that kind of off-balance attitude and practice in their area.

    As they say,

    Think globally, act locally.

  • Kate

    Frying small fish is important, too.

    Read Malcom Gladwell’s book – The Tipping Point – he describes how cracking down on turnstile jumpers and graffiti artists helped scale back major crime for one city. ;)

  • Polly

    Ricahrd Wade,

    If our side wins, what have we really won? The sherrif takes his jesus fish off and we piss off a lot of people who now think, “boy those *Athiests* are an ornery group. They must be filled with the devil so much they can’t even behold our savior’s fishy symbol! And the gov’munt is on THEIR side!”

    Why can’t we extend our influence in more positive ways, first? Legal battles should be waged, IMO, when the issue really affects somebody directly and negatively – freedom of speech issues, not getting on the ballot cause you support freethought, school curricula, etc.

    @Kate,

    Nobody likes graffitti or turnstyle jumping. But, people in this country just LOVE Jeebus. We’d more likely be seen as the taggers rather than the ones cleaning it up, I bet.

  • Richard Wade

    Polly,
    I think this should be corrected, but most importantly it should be corrected by the people of that county, like the commenter above, Bible Belt Non-Believer. They are the ones who know how big or small a deal this is. They know if this is just a little fudge by one not-so-professional deputy, or if this is the tip of an iceberg of religious intrusion into their local government. The saying, “Every country has the government it deserves” applies here, to this county. If nobody living there cares, then they have it coming to them, and whatever comes next.

    I don’t think that we need to worry about the argument that some people will get pissed off at atheists if someone protests this. We don’t have to do anything more than just exist for them to hate us, so to put it in a delicate way, fuck ‘em.

    But maybe they might learn that wiping their asses with the First Amendment, even in a little way is not acceptable, and that there are people, atheists or not, who will stand up and stop it, and maybe they’ll learn that the gov’munt has to be on everyone’s side, not just on Jeebus’s side.

    Yes, I agree that we should extend our influence in positive ways, but we also have to fight against the thousands of daily negatives at the same time. I’m tired of tiptoeing around while my freedom, everybody’s freedom is nibbled away in tiny pieces. How much of the death of a thousand cuts is acceptable?

  • Kate

    Polly – not quite my point. ;) By focusing attention and cracking down on “minor” crimes, “big” crimes rapidly decreased.

  • AJ

    @Mike No, when someone makes blanket statements about, for example, everyone living in Georgia, they are being prejudiced and using stereotypes.

    Again, despite being a non-theist myself, I just can’t see how making a big deal about this will do anything remotely positive.

    I absolutely agree in the wall of separation between church and state. On the other hand, some people appear to be on a quixotic quest to destroy any sign of religion that they can find.

  • Polly

    I just don’t want “SUE!” to be our M.O. for small matters. It builds resentment. And when national org’s get involved, it has the potential to turn into a clash of civilizations type battle.

    @Kate,

    Oh, I understood. I just don’t think the analogy holds because I think our cleanup efforts might backfire without the support of the local society.
    They can redouble efforts to teach Creationism/ID in schools, indoctrinate their kids that much more intensely, and elect men running on platforms specifically to combat the atheistic “liberal agenda.” Cleaning up one sherrif’s car might mean the whole county adopts a siege mentality toward freethinking. Then our “win” will end up a greater loss.

    Of course, if that’s happening already, then there’s nothing to lose.

  • Richard Wade

    Polly, I agree that lawsuits are the last resort rather than the first. Educating the sheriff with a letter about the inappropriateness of the fish emblem on a government vehicle might be more than enough to nip it in the bud.

    However, doing nothing for fear of a reactionary response from the community has no end. Where would you say “Enough!” in the following scenario?

    1. The county sheriff puts one Ichthys on the van he usually drives. Those local citizens who find it objectionable, not wanting to inflame the rest of the community, do not object.

    2. Not having anyone to bring up his awareness of how the Ichthys is out of bounds, the sheriff has them put on all the sheriff department vehicles. Wanting to avoid a reactionary backlash, the local people who value the establishment clause say nothing and do nothing.

    3. County officials notice the fish on all the sheriff vehicles, and without even thinking about any Constitutional conflict, begin to install them on all county vehicles. The citizens who see the problem with a county-wide endorsement of a specific religion, rationalizing that they’re just harmless little fishy symbols of the predominant religion in the county, sit on their butts and try to ignore it.

    4. Not long after that, having received no education about church-state issues, the county supervisors install a cross on the wall of their chamber, directly over their county seal. Those who might have objected, faced with such strong consensus against them, not only say nothing, they pretend to approve.

    Polly, now so far, these have only involved symbols. Nobody has been “directly and negatively effected” as you put it. But in this pervasive atmosphere where nobody in the county government thinks twice about it, how long would it be before religious considerations begin to creep into hiring practices for the sheriff’s department and the rest of the county? How long until the sheriff’s response to crimes begin to be different for church-going victims vs. those who do not attend? How long before financial decisions of the county supervisors favor religious projects over secular projects?

    The above scenario you might find implausible somewhere along the line, but that is not really my point. It would grow worse not because people are consciously, deliberately wanting to insinuate their religion into local government, but because they’re not thinking about it one way or another. The point of objecting to the little fish is about keeping up public awareness. A simple, respectful disapproval of this small tort could bring up the sheriff’s awareness. If you do not educate people about church-state separation issues, they generally do not spontaneously come to appreciate how important those issues are, and they blithely continue to increase their intrusions until they become seriously harmful. Then it is very hard to correct, and then divisive and expensive lawsuits are the only remedy.

  • J Myers

    Educating the sheriff with a letter about the inappropriateness of the fish emblem on a government vehicle might be more than enough to nip it in the bud.

    Barney Fife reference?

  • Richard Wade

    LOL! J Myers, thanks, that was hilarious! I always liked Barney Fife. As silly, pompous and incompetent as he could be, he was always conscientiously trying to keep up his professionalism. Even if he had been religious, he would never have approved of a fish emblem on a sheriff car. Andy, being the ultimate “aw, let’s not get anybody all riled up” kind of guy, would have ignored the issue.

  • Polly

    @Richard,

    Depending on the tone of the letter, I think it would be a good idea – not threatenting or written in legalese; more like a friendly reminder.

    Even so, I would prefer if the first the community hears from atheists is through some kind of community service rather than about removing a symbol of their faith.

    The one thing I definitely do not want is for us to go around making federal (literally) cases out of these small things.

    • Roy Linford Adams

      In almost all cases a letter, no matter ow friendly, will be seen as a threat and will be deliberatly taken as a sign of persecution. My money is on the cop tearing the letter up if not taking it to his community first to show how he is the target of an “anti-God” attack.

  • Richard Wade

    Polly, I completely share your preferences, and I’m always looking for some opportunity to have a constructive contribution to make to my community as an atheist. I hope we can both make a positive difference.

  • Roy Linford Adams

    Someone just needs to stick on the rest of the religious emblems on the vehicle while he’s in Dunkin Donuts. And stick a small sign right next to them saying “ALL or NONE”


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