Accused Attempted Murderer Files Lawsuit Over ‘In God We Trust’ Signs on Anderson County Courthouse

On Tuesday, the first “In God We Trust” sign was unveiled over the entrance of the Anderson County Courthouse in Tennessee, and three more were scheduled to be put up yesterday.

A family celebrates the new sign (via Oak Ridge Today)

Guess what? There’s already a lawsuit to have them taken down.

But it wasn’t filed by an atheist or church/state separation group.

Instead, it was filed by a lawyer for… um… this guy:

Kenneth Darrin Fisher, 22, of Clinton is accused of the attempted first-degree murder of his wife and illegal possession of an assault rifle, and his case is due to go trial next spring.

Through attorney David Stuart, Fisher filed a motion in Anderson County Criminal Court on Wednesday seeking to dismiss all charges against him, asserting that the signs violate his freedom of worship rights under the U.S. and Tennessee constitutions. The motion states that Fisher is a blood member of the Cherokee Nation and a follower of “a Red Road” faith.

… Fisher, a military veteran who served in Afghanistan, says that he is offended by the “Constitutional affront” presented by the signs and objects to “being reminded that they have judged him as being destined to go to hell every time he passes through one of the entryways to the courthouse.

(In case you’re curious like I was, for Cherokees, the “Red Road is the path we walk on when we want a direct relationship with the Great Spirit.”)

While it makes me uncomfortable to take the side of someone accused of murder, this is precisely the kind of concern county officials should be ready to deal with — the idea that non-Christians will not feel like they’re being judged fairly when they enter the courthouse.

This particular lawsuit is calling for charges against Fisher to be dropped altogether. If the signs stay up, he says he won’t be treated fairly. If the signs come down (permanently or temporarily), he says he’ll be blamed for it and not be treated fairly.

Have fun with that one, Anderson County.

Even if this lawsuit gets thrown out, it probably won’t be the last. There was no good reason for the signs to go up in the first place and county officials should brace themselves for more legal battles.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Tim

    “While it makes me uncomfortable to take the side of someone accused of murder”
    why? The key word here is accused. Until and unless he is found guilty you are not siding with a murderer

    • Ibis3

      Let me Godwin here because, well, that statement just cries for it. You do know Hitler was never convicted of murder or genocide either? And OJ Simpson was acquitted. An official trial isn’t necessary for a reasonable person to come to their own conclusions about whether someone did something bad, and neither is the outcome of a trial a finding of fact. A person is a murderer if they’ve actually murdered someone, whether or not they’ve been found guilty in a trial.

      • The Other Weirdo

        They may also be not a murderer even if they have been found guilty of murder in a court of law.

        • mike

          They may also not be a murderer if they have been charged w/ attempted murder. They may also not be a nice guy.

      • Gus Snarp

        I think that’s true, but as far as the law is concerned, he is not a murderer until he’s been convicted as a murderer, and as far as the media (and I’m including Hemant in that), he should be treated as not a murderer until the trial is over. Individuals can certainly have their own opinions, and he certainly either is or is not a murderer, as human beings are not in superposition simply due to lack of information, but we just don’t know.

      • Tim

        A resonable person can reach their own conclusions, but only if they have the facts. I know nothing of this man or his actions, he lives thousands of miles away from me. I will never meet him. He might be a nice guy he might be a scumbag, but I am not going to place him in the scumbag category merely on the basis of a photo and the information that he has been charged with a crime.

      • Drew M.

        A person is a murderer if they’ve actually murdered someone, whether or not they’ve been found guilty in a trial.

        And if a person is not a murderer if he is charged with and even found guilty of attempted murder.

    • mike

      also, it says attempted.

    • WingedBeast

      From a legal perspective, that’s the most important difference.
      But, I think the concern may be about PR. From a PR perspective, it’s a distinction without a difference.

    • UWIR

      1. As WingedBeast said, there are serious PR issues with taking the side of an accused murderer, even if they’re just accused.

      2. If this fails, and he’s tried and found guilty, then atheists will have sided with a convicted attempted murderer.

      • kaydenpat

        Not because he’s a murderer but because he’s right.

  • Brian Westley

    Wow! This is actually a great case — a minority religion, a very serious criminal charge that makes impartiality paramount, no question of standing, etc.

    If he wins and it’s taken down, his counter-argument would probably be mooted by a change of venue.

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      As a matter of law, wouldn’t a change of venue suffice for his particular complaint (although not for the more general problem of establishment)?

      • Len

        If it stays in the state, couldn’t he argue that the precendent is set by this court house because the state allowed (or at least didn’t object to) the sign?

      • Brian Westley

        That might be possible, but I’m pretty sure a change of venue needs a valid reason, and for his primary complaint it looks like the reason would be so the courthouse could avoid a lawsuit, which I doubt would be considered a valid reason. He might still have standing even after a change of venue, because the sign would require him to go to trial some distance away.

        • MrMoto

          I agree — a local court can’t say “we can’t give him a fair trial, but I am sure we can find somebody else who can”. If you want to charge people with crimes, you have to try them per the Constitution, which you agree to follow. Break that social and legal contract, and you are no longer really a court of law.

      • C Peterson

        That would create an interesting legal situation, since providing a change of venue would require acknowledging that the presence of “In God We Trust” on the courthouse did, in fact, result in the possibility of an unfair trial.

    • MrMoto

      I don’t think a change of venue will help the DA in this case. The defendant has a right to a speedy trial by the jurisdiction that charged him. If they have broke their legal system, they don’t get to transfer those charged around the state.

      If he can get a hearing before a higher court judge, he will probably go free?

      The south has broken their legal system before, during the civil rights battles of the 1950′s and 60′s, requiring the federal government to step in and take over.

  • sam

    I find the Stepford/Manson family in the photo far more disturbing than McChristian logo above them.

    • flyb

      Reminds me of the “vagina: not a clown car” meme.

      • Mira

        Lady I like cigars but I take it out of my mouth every once in a while!

        Something like that, I think.

  • Gus Snarp

    It doesn’t make me uncomfortable at all. He’s not the most sympathetic face we could put on the case, but he has the same rights as any of us until he is convicted, and even then he only loses a few specific rights. He always retains his freedom of religion.

    I think a Cherokee who practices a traditional native religion makes a great plaintiff, as long as he’s legit.

    Unfortunately, I think it’s going to be tough, considering some of the precedent on this particular phrase.

  • Mick

    The Christians will be delighted. They got their sign posted and now they’re in the news as well.

    On top of that they are in a win-win situation.

    If the sign stays up they win.

    If the sign comes down they can play the part of brave little soldiers in the army of the lord; attacked on all sides by the demonic forces of evil.

    • Darrell Ross

      Your example of god goggles is always present. They see everything as a win regardless of outcome.

  • C Peterson

    I’ve commented before that if I ever found myself in front of a judge in a place with “In God We Trust” over the doors, or over the bench, that I’d sue on grounds of the inability to receive a fair trial. Glad to see somebody taking this approach.

    • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

      Yes. If I was on trial I would much rather they trust the evidence in the case, rather than any gods.

  • Dave

    No need to be uncomfortable, he is innocent until proven guilty. And he served in Afghanistan risking his life for our freedom. He deserves support for a fair and impartial trial.

    • 3lemenope

      Quite so, although I have no earthly idea why that second sentence has anything to do with the rest. If he were a conscientious objector and a pacifist, he would be equally entitled and deserving of support for a fair and impartial trial.

      • Obazervazi

        Conservatives love that shit. It’s an easy way to remind people who may not agree with us that Fisher is the good guy in this scenario.

        • 3lemenope

          I almost don’t have the heart to tell you that you’re right now talking to one of them there dirty conservatives. ;-) That aside, I agree that populist expressions of conservatism in the US have taken on an obnoxiously jingoistic edge.

          • Obazervazi

            Interesting. Thank you for reminding me to be less of an asshole.

  • UWIR

    I’d also like to see some challenges to the “So help you God” stuff. Some possible test cases:

    A witness for the defense takes the stand. The bailiff asks “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” The witness refuses, and insists on making a secular affirmation instead. The defendant moves for a mistrial on the basis that the court has prejudiced the jury against the witness.

    A witness is asked to swear an oath, refuses, and is offered the option of an affirmation, and refuses that on the basis that having an affirmation offered as an alternative presents it as an inferior option.

    A prospective juror is asked to swear an oath, insists on an affirmation, is dismissed in a peremptory challenge by the prosecution, and the defense moves for a mistrial for improper voir dire.

    A prospective juror refuses to swear an oath, and is charged with contempt of court for the disruption.

    • allein

      Do they still say “so help you God?” I had to go to court a couple years ago and I don’t think they said that part when we were sworn in (though there was still the Bible on the table to place your hand on).

  • busterggi

    I don’t find it at all surprising that an accused murderer has higher principles than the Christians who deliberately violated the Constitution in this instance.

  • Compuholic

    The picture really bothers me. This is a single family?! You couldn’t bring more stereotypes together of you tried. It is simply scary…

    • kaydenpat

      I was wondering the same thing. What a lot of children!

    • Jabberwocky

      Yes, it’s the Bates family. They’re friends of the Duggars (from “19 Kids and Counting”) and live in Tennessee. No birth control for these families: they leave the number of children up to God. Google Quiverfull.

  • Bill Santagata

    Displaying the national motto cannot possibly be unconstitutional. He’s just a desperate defendant trying to stall the system. Move along folks, nothing to see here…

    • phantomreader42

      So, because he isn’t a member of a privileged religious group, you discount his concerns and assume he’s doing something dishonest. The fact that he’s not a christian means he’s presumed guilty, not because of the evidence but simply because he doesn’t worship the right invisible sky tyrant. How does this not prove his point that official government endorsement of religion (which is forbidden by the First Amendment BTW) means religious minorities can’t get a fair trial?

      • Bill Santagata

        Where did I say he is presumed guilty?

        The federal courts have ruled time and time and time again that ceremonial references to a generic Supreme Being do not violate the Establishment Clause. That is the law, whether you like it or not.

        If the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals (which serves Tennessee) upheld Ohio’s state motto (“With God, all things are possible.”) then under this precedent “In God We Trust” certainly passes constitutional muster, as *every single federal court decision on the matter has found*. I’m accusing the defendant of stalling because he is already trying to re-litigate an issue that has been litigated to death, and has been the subject of an en banc decision in Tennessee’s federal circuit.

        If the national motto is constitutional, then its display over a courthouse simply cannot be unconstitutional.

        • MrMoto

          As I said above, if the the application is a motto, then fine, the courts have ruled. Is that the application is this case?

          Again, the Lemon Test.

          • Bill Santagata

            The Lemon Test is not applicable under the ceremonial deism doctrine. Marsh v. Chambers.

        • http://confessionsfromthepeanutgallery.blogspot.com/ YankeeCynic

          While you’re correct that federal courts have ruled that some displays are constitutional, a cursory reading of the US Constitution would demonstrate they were incorrect in doing so. Remember, the Dredd Scott case ruled that slaves weren’t citizens, despite the many constitutional indications to the contrary.

          Just because something is found to be practically constitutional (i.e. permitted to continue by federal courts) doesn’t mean it’s ideally constitutional (i.e. by the letter and spirit of the constitution). The delta between the two is rather significant.

          • Bill Santagata

            What the Supreme Court says, goes. Anderson County is not responsible for following the Constitution as “YankeeCynic” would interpret it.

            • http://confessionsfromthepeanutgallery.blogspot.com/ YankeeCynic

              Nice substance-free response.

              First, you’ll note that I acknowledged that what the Supreme Court says, goes. You’ll also note that I was making the case that the Supreme Court got it wrong, hence the point I was trying to make.

              Second, even acknowledging this, that doesn’t make what Aderson County is doing a smart decision. Nothing says good government like extending a massive middle finger to every non-Christian passing through or living in the county. They might not have to follow my interpretation (their mistake), but I assume they should be responsible for proper stewardship of their positions.

              Third and finally, how do you think you end up changing the case-law? You keep making challenges until the Supreme Court overturns its previous rulings. Hence the need to keep pressing forward. The problem being, of course, is that Anderson County will have to spend a great deal of money. Them again, if US history is any indication elected officials have no problem burning money that could go to public works in order to feel self-righteous and perpetuate a matyr-complex.

              Also, nice use of quotation marks around the name. It gives your comment quite the air of smugness.

              • Bill Santagata

                You can’t just go guns-ablazing trying to overturn Supreme Court precedent. There has to be an ideological shift conducive to overturning what you see as the incorrect precedent. There has not been an ideological shift on the Supreme Court that would be open to hearing a challenge to “In God We Trust,” an issue that has been litigated since the 1970s. It is, for the time being, a dead issue.

                As I am in favor of current Supreme Court precedent on the Establishment Clause, I would not like it to be either expanded or constricted, so on whether or not I personally believe the Supreme Court got it right (not that our opinions on that make any difference whatsoever) I would also disagree with you.

    • MrMoto

      If the intent is ceremonial (as on money) then I agree. In this case, it may not be.

      For instance, you cannot require school children to repeat the words “In God We Trust” (or even “under God”) can you? So clearly you recognize there are exceptions, as ruled by the court.

      Courts have ruled on this, defining the “Lemon Test”. I don’t think this is a cut an dry as you do, as the Lemon Test can clearly be applied here.

      • Bill Santagata

        Requiring schoolchildren to say In God We Trust/Under God would not violate the Establishment Clause, it would violate the Free Speech Clause (as compelled speech: see West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette).

        The Supreme Court has eschewed the use of the Lemon Test under the ceremonial deism doctrine. See Marsh v. Chambers.

    • Michael W Busch

      The national motto is not part of the constitution. It was established by legislation, whose constitutionality can be and is argued in court. The prior rulings of ceremonial deism and the like are not binding precedent.

      • Bill Santagata

        The national motto is established by federal law under Congress’ authority to “make rules for the government,” which also allows them to set the design of our flag, create a seal for the country (which also invokes the Divine), and establish a national anthem. The constitutionality of the national motto has been argued in federal court and has been upheld in every single case. Where these decisions come from federal courts of appeal, they are binding precedent within that circuit. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Marsh v. Chambers also sets nationwide precedent.

  • Psychotic Atheist

    I’m not siding with an alleged violent person. Whether the person who makes this point is a murderer, a child abuser, a pot smoker or an illegal music downloader – the point remains the same. To dismiss this person’s complaint because of his personal characteristics would be an ad hominem error.

    I agree that there is a perception that those that don’t ‘trust God’ are unwelcome and when it’s your life/liberty on the line your perception of biases in the system is of course heightened. Regardless of guilt, I would feel uncomfortable being tried at this court. I understand why he does too.

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

      Well said!