TN County Owes Atheists $41,000 After Sheriff Promoted Christianity on Department’s Facebook Page

Back in March, on Easter, the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office in Cleveland, Tennessee very deliberately promoted Christianity on its official Facebook page:

HeIsRisen

Today is one of the most historic days; not only did Jesus die on the cross for our sins, but he rose on this day! Luke 24:2-3 says, “And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.” Mankind was redeemed forevermore when he was resurrected from the grave.

Jesus paid the ultimate sacrifice, and offered himself for our sins. This day represents the best gift any of us could receive, which is “Eternal Life” with our Heavenly Father!!!

That wasn’t just a promotion of Christianity. It looked like it was edited by a second grader who just learned what exclamation points were.

The American Atheists Legal Center sent a letter to Sheriff Eric Watson warning him against this illegal proselytizing, noting that they knew it wasn’t his first time doing something like this:

“A quick look back on the BSCO Facebook page and website found additional references to Christianity made by the sheriff, including:

– Feb. 29: In a post titled “The Time We Live In,” the sheriff states that “Living today is best done with a lot of prayer.” Sheriff Watson also writes that he is aghast that used tires were dumped in a church lot, and notes that a ‘man of God’ he knew has died recently.

– Dec. 21, 2015: In a post about the winter solstice, Sheriff Watson ends by stating ‘Moreover, as we say at the BCSO, Merry Christmas!’

– On the official BCSO website, Sheriff Watson offers a 12-second video welcome that ends with him saying ‘God bless you.’”

Any one of those things, on its own, might not be a big deal, but when they’re part of a trend that includes blatant promotion of Christianity on the department’s website, it’s clear that the person in charge of defending the law was more than eager to break it himself.

Not that Watson cared. He responded to American Atheists by saying he wouldn’t change a damn thing:

“When I campaigned for the office of sheriff, and before that, the office of state representative, I never made any effort to hide or deny my strong, personal Christian faith,” Watson said.

“It is this faith that has guided me throughout my life, and I thank God every day for parents who instilled in their children their own personal beliefs and values.”

Watson said the Facebook posts “are not taxpayer funded.”

“There is no charge involved with our Facebook page,” he said. “It is not government-funded.”

Funding isn’t the issue. The Facebook page is the official page for the government organization, not his personal website. This was a man in a taxpayer-funded position, using his office to promote religion on the job.

Watson added that it was all okay, anyway, because there weren’t even any atheists in law enforcement:

“I can’t imagine any law enforcement officer who, on a daily basis, goes out and risks losing their lives not having faith of some sort,” Watson said. “Now that I serve as Bradley County’s sheriff, those beliefs and values are more important to me than ever.”

And I couldn’t imagine someone that ignorant heading up a Sheriff’s department, but I guess I was wrong, too. (Of course there are atheists in law enforcement — they trust their colleagues and their skills, not an angel from above. I promise you officers are not taking off their bulletproof vests just because they think God is watching over them.)

After sending two separate warning letters, American Atheists eventually filed a lawsuit over the matter on behalf of a plaintiff who wished to remain anonymous (because the backlash would be fierce).

One more point about the Facebook page: The lawsuit mentioned that when the plaintiff criticized the sheriff’s actions on Facebook, he deleted her comments. It’s as if he were back in high school. It also made me wonder when he actually got any work done…

“This lawsuit is about protecting the community’s First Amendment right to speak out about its elected officials,” said American Atheists’ National Legal Director, Amanda Knief. “The BCSO had no problem with public comments until they were critical of the sheriff or of his proselytizing at work. But the government doesn’t get to silence speech it doesn’t like — even if that speech is negative, unflattering, and disrespectful of the sheriff’s religion.”

American Atheists and Jane Doe are seeking a permanent restraining order preventing censorship of social media comments and preventing the use of government social media for the sheriff to proselytize.

I’m thrilled to announce that the lawsuit (which later added another plaintiff) has finally been settled and, on paper, it’s an overwhelmingly victory for the atheists. You can read the unsigned draft of the settlement, but here are the takeaway points:

  • The county will pay $15,000 in damages to American Atheists and the two plaintiffs.
  • The county will pay $26,000 in legal fees to American Atheists’ lawyers.
  • The Bradley County Sheriff’s Department’s Facebook page will be shut down.
  • A new Facebook page for the Department will be created as an “information only” site, free of religious posts. (Comments will not be allowed.)
  • Eric Watson will be able to maintain a personal Facebook page that has no connected with his Department. He can post whatever he wants on it, as long as there’s a disclaimer stating that he’s not speaking for the government.
  • Watson and the county admit no wrongdoing.

That last one is standard in these kinds of settlements, but does it really mean anything when your wallet is $41,000 lighter?

American Atheists is, not surprisingly, very happy with how this worked out:

“This settlement is a clear win for the plaintiffs, whose First Amendment rights to free speech and to be free of government establishment of religion were infringed upon,” said Amanda Knief, National Legal and Public Policy Director of American Atheists. We are pleased the sheriff has agreed to do the right thing by no longer using this official government social media account to promote religion.”

“What is unfortunate, is that it took a lawsuit and more than $40,000 in taxpayer money for the county and sheriff to put this common sense policy in place,” Knief added. “We would have preferred that the sheriff allow citizens the freedom to comment and interact with the sheriff’s office on the Facebook page, but we were not able to reach agreement on that during mediation.”

The anonymous plaintiff also issued this statement earlier today (via email):

I’m satisfied with the outcome of our case against Bradley County and the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office. I did not want a lawsuit, but citizens have a right to speak to their government no matter what the platform, and my main goal was to make sure that people who posted to the BCSO page were not censored. This goal was not completely achieved because the sheriff’s office has chosen to have no comments from the public on its Facebook page rather than deal with negative comments. However, this new policy does prevent censorship against certain people or certain viewpoints.

I am a firm believer in the First Amendment of the Constitution. I strongly believe the separation of church and state protects everyone’s right to have religious or non-religious beliefs. I celebrate our freedom to speak our minds to our elected officials. We elect them to protect our constitutional rights and act on our behalf and, when they don’t, they need to be held accountable.

I have always said that Constitutional rights are worth fighting for, and I am proud that when tested, I stood by that principle. It was not easy to stand up to the county sheriff and some people in my community who disagreed with me. Despite some negative backlash, I do not regret taking action against government censorship. If you don’t stand up for yourself, you risk losing your rights.

Many thanks to American Atheists, which works to protect the rights of atheists and religious minorities and to keep church and state separate, and to Amanda Knief, their legal director: her guidance was invaluable.

Stand by for cries of persecution from Christians who see this settlement as unjust… but would be up in arms if a Muslim Sheriff ever tried to do the same thing.

(Large portions of this article were published earlier)


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