A Tennessee Sheriff is using his station’s official facebook page to evangelize and American Atheists is none too happy about it:
Sheriff Eric Watson said he was open about his faith before he was elected and will remain so while in office.
“I respect the right of others to believe as they so choose, but my personal faith in Christ is absolute. I will not alter or change my faith for any reason,” Watson said.
Oh…ok. Somebody must be saying he can’t be sheriff while also being a Christian, otherwise such assertions make no sense. So what happened?
The sheriff was responding to a letter he received March 28 from the American Atheists Legal Center in Washington, D.C.
In the letter, AALC said the organization had received a complaint on March 27 about a Facebook post the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office had “posted about the Christian holiday Easter”
“American Atheists Legal Center found that on March 27, the BCSO posted in its official Facebook page an image stating ‘He is Risen’ with a message that quotes the bible and evangelizes the meaning of Easter,” the letter stated.
Oh, so Sheriff Watson was using his official government capacity to evangelize. Yeah, that’s a whole different matter. Nobody’s asking him to not be a Christian, they’re asking him, as they would ask any citizen (particularly a fucking sheriff) to not break the law.
The organization does not capitalize the word “bible” throughout the letter.
Those heathen fucks. They’ve really crossed a line now.
The letter continues:
“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.’”
Meh, the last two are passive-aggressive bullshit, but that first on one the 29th is a pretty major no-no for a government employee in their official capacity as a government employee.
[Amanda Knief, national legal and public policy director for the AALC] cites the U.S. Supreme Court “has recognized that the Establishment Clause prohibits government from appearing to take a position on questions of religious beliefs or from making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person’s standing in the political community.
“With official statements that demonstrate the sheriff’s preference for Christians in the county, there may be cause to question the allocation of resources based on religion in the BCSO,” Knief wrote.
Watson said Friday the voters of Bradley County got what they saw when he was elected.
“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.
Which is fine as a private citizen. But when you work for the government it doesn’t matter if the majority in your county want you to use your post to evangelize or if they want you to arrest every brown-skinned person on the basis of their skin color, regardless of how Christian/racist you were before being elected you can’t start breaking the law once you have the job.
You’re the freaking sheriff. You ought to know this. It shouldn’t take legal experts sending you letters to explain how you, the law enforcement official, are breaking the law.
“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.”
More power to you. Keep doing that. But you still can’t evangelize while acting as sheriff.
Watson said the Facebook posts “are not taxpayer funded.”
But they are part of the sheriff’s office’s official site. That makes them government speech. This is not hard.
“There is no charge involved with our Facebook page,” he said. “It is not government-funded.”
It doesn’t have to be. It’s the office’s official page (and if you made posts while on the clock, then yes, it is government-funded).
Knief uses as another example the sheriff’s article, “The Time We Live In,” where he wrote that he was particularly upset about the tires being dumped at a local church.
“As a non-religious person, I am curious if Sheriff Watson would have been just as upset if the tires had been dumped at a school? At a private business, such as a grocery store? What if the tires had been dumped on a private citizen’s lawn?” Knief wrote.”
“There were several postings on the Facebook page about this incident with the sheriff quoted multiple times — more postings about tire dumping at a church than about meth labs, assaults, and other crimes. This non-injurious crime seemed to be solved very quickly. Was this case given more resources and manpower because the sheriff was upset it occurred at a church?”
“This group obviously does not look at our entire record,” Watson said. “The BCSO’s main purpose is to protect all of the citizens of Bradley County. We are seeing success in that purpose. Our arrest rates are up and we have solved many of the serious crimes very quickly.”
And I tip big at restaurants. Does that earn me break-the-law-with-no-consequences credits? It’s great that you’re doing your job. Nobody’s complaining about any of that stuff. But it’s also your job to obey the law (as well as enforce it), and on that front you’re doing a piss poor job.
The AALC letter continues:
“In the same article, the sheriff mentioned a ‘man of God’ who died recently — a local minister,” Knief wrote. “While I’m sure he was a good person and his family grieves their loss, why is it appropriate for the sheriff, in his official capacity, to laud the accomplishments of a Christian minister? Would the sheriff do the same of a Jewish rabbi? A Muslim imam? A humanist celebrant? What about an atheist who was simply a good person in the community? The sheriff’s personal beliefs appear to be informing his choices as a government official.”
“My personal faith is forced on no one,” he said. “No one has to read my columns. No one has to participate in spiritual or religious events.”
But when you use your official capacity to spread that religion you’re providing it with the endorsement of the government. That’s not legal. When you’re out of uniform and waltzing around town on your own time, then you can shout hallelujah til you’re blue in the face — but you can’t do it in your official capacity.
The AALC letter continues:
“Finally, in the Winter Solstice article on Dec. 12, 2015, the sheriff wrote that the BCSO said ‘Merry Christmas.’ That is a potentially litigious statement for a state employer to make. It is illegal to ask your employees what their religious views and practices are, and with 40 percent of the local population not having any religious beliefs, it also likely makes that statement an imposition of Sheriff Watson’s religious beliefs on his employees. The Tennessee Human Rights Act, TN Code Sec. 4-21-401, et seq., prohibits discrimination based on religion in the workplace.”
“It is obvious to me these people have never visited Bradley County,” Watson said. “If there ever was one, this is a county strong in faith. Try turning a corner and not seeing a church. If they are offended by someone wishing them Merry Christmas, I’m sorry about that. But, if members of the community we serve say the same thing to our officers, am I supposed to instruct them not to respond in a polite and proper way?”
You’re not supposed to tell them what they ought to say, especially when it’s clear your motivation for doing so is religious. It’s like he’s intentionally missing the point.
And it doesn’t matter how many people in your county are religious – the law still applies. The fact that Watson makes this argument, that the majority religion should get special privileges, supports Knief’s complaint that Watson appears to give his own religion special treatment in his governmental role.
“One thing I will assure the citizens of Bradley County, there will be no BCSO employee ever disciplined on my watch for wishing someone a Merry Christmas,” Watson said. “If they don’t want to see it on our Facebook page, don’t pull it up.”
Nobody’s saying that should happen. You’re literally addressing something nobody ever said.
Just as officers are not discouraged to use the phrase, Watson said there is no penalty for not using it.
“But, I know the staff and officers of the BCSO,” he said. “They are Bradley countians like me — with the same kind of raising I had. Saying ‘Merry Christmas’ is a part of life around here. It’s part of who we are.”
Way to exclude the citizens of your county who don’t say that phrase.
In the letter, AALC said it is not attacking Watson personally and has “no issue with Sheriff Watson’s personal religion.”
“We respect law enforcement and the efforts of the BCSO to reach out into its community,” the AALC letter concludes. “However, we are hopeful that after this letter, the BCSO will see that its community includes many non-religious persons too, and they deserve to be treated with equal respect, dignity, and recognition as Christians. We believe the best way to do that is to stop using the BCSO as a platform to evangelize the sheriff’s personal religious beliefs.”
Watson disagrees the department is being utilized “to evangelize.”
And how does he defend that statement? By essentially claiming there are no atheists in fox holes:
“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.“
“Keep digging, dude,” thought Amanda Knief.
“As a servant of the people, Jesus Christ will continue to be my role model as the greatest servant mankind has ever known,” he added. “My duties as sheriff are 24-hours a day, seven days a week. If the expectation is I have to take off my badge to express my faith, I don’t buy that…”
Then your county is going to buy it to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, minimum, in a lost lawsuit.
“…I am not forcing my faith on anyone doing what I do. But, if the pillars of that faith — love, mercy, justice, forgiveness and redemption — are not good examples to set fourth, what are? Even those who are ‘non-religious’ should not have any problems with expressing and endorsing those attributes.”
How did “don’t use your government job to evangelize” turn into “we oppose mercy, justice, forgiveness, and redemption”? That’s like saying you disagree with my blog post because pizza is tasty, and since I believe pizza is tasty I should retract it. The two aren’t related.
“I want to also reassure those who have made this demand that I have never used an elected office to force my beliefs on others,” he said.
But you have used it to pimp them, which is against the law.
“I hope my example will help others to see the light some day. All religious activities held in connection with my office are strictly voluntary. It is through example and not pressure, that we strive to win the heart and souls of those who are seeking a better life.”
And he keeps on doing the very thing for which he’s about to get sued. Seems anybody can get elected in this country if they’re just dumb enough.