By Madeline Ziegler
Freedom From Religion Foundation
In the past couple months, FFRF has sent dozens of letters around the country to sheriffs’ and police departments that are decorating their patrol cars with “In God We Trust” stickers.
FFRF’s entreaties for law enforcement officials to take into account their communities’ nonreligious and polytheistic residents have largely fallen on deaf ears. And the few formal responses that have trickled in are breathtakingly disrespectful.
One came from Henderson County Sheriff Brian Duke in Lexington, Tenn. The entirety of the body of the letter was “NO” in large font:
Most recently, Childress, Tex. Police Chief Adrian Garcia’s letter reads [sic]:
After carefully reading your letter I must deny your request in the removal of our Nations motto from our patrol units, and ask that you and the Freedom From Religion Foundation go fly a kite.
Other than a penchant for unorthodox capitalization, the responses had some other things in common. Both use the infantilizing salutation “Dear Annie,” which, in addition to reeking of sexism, is not even accurate (our co-president’s first name is Annie Laurie, and she should of course be addressed as Ms. Gaylor in letters).
As you can see from the pictures, both also posted their responses first on social media. In fact, we haven’t even received the letter from the Childress police yet. The only reason we know about it is because it’s currently going viral on Facebook. Chief Garcia is obviously more interested in scoring points with Christians on social media than having an actual conversation with us about an important issue.
Along the same lines, many people who reported their community’s “In God We Trust” decals to FFRF found out about them in the first place when their local sheriff or police department bragged about them on Facebook. This sort of thing is exactly what “In God We Trust” supporters’ Lord and Savior preached against in Matthew 6:5-6, when he decries hypocrites who make sure they are seen praying in public. It’s no mistake that far more sheriffs, who are elected politicians, are engaging in this kind of pandering than police chiefs. (Scan this list of places we’ve written to get a sense of the ratio.) For most of this fad’s participants, this is clearly nothing more than an opportunity to cheaply buy some political capital by standing up to us mean atheists.
Even a more traditional response from a law firm representing the Sheriff Gregory Coursey of Burke County, Ga. smacks of derision. “I have reviewed the contents of your letter as referenced above, and as you can well imagine we take issue and deny all of the allegations set forth therein,” wrote Attorney E. Freddie Sanders in a letter that attempts to mask poor grammar with legalese. “Sheriff Coursey does not intend to remove this motto from these patrol cars and he is prepared to litigate to whatever extent necessary in regards to the same.”
Sanders assured FFRF that Sheriff Coursey “does not offend” any of the county’s citizens. This may come as a surprise to our presumably offended Burke County complainant, who wrote, “It is a sigh of relief that I am, in fact, not out of line and not alone” when reporting the issue to FFRF.
It is deeply troubling, if unsurprising, that these kind of flip, smug responses are the message that some law enforcement officials are only too happy to send to the nonbelievers in their communities. It’s a mark of how much further this movement has to go in convincing even people who should know better that there are nonbelievers in their communities who deserve just as much respect as the next person, and of how much can be accomplished by coming out of the closet
The Supreme Court has yet to weigh in, but some federal courts have upheld “In God We Trust” by ruling it to be “ceremonial,” with “no religious significance.” (We’re confused too.) The responses to FFRF’s letter demonstrate the nonsense of that argument. Commenters on Facebook shout about “religious freedom,” offer “amens,” and ask God to bless sheriffs and police chiefs. I suspect they would also be surprised, and perhaps even offended, to learn that “In God We Trust” is not religious. A statement that makes reference to trusting God is so obviously religious that it’s barely worth debating, and because the motto sanctifies religion over nonreligion, it’s unconstitutional, and it’s time to put an end to it.
If not for legal reasons, law enforcement agencies should still not be so hasty to plaster such an exclusionary statement across government property. What is an atheist, agnostic, or polytheist supposed to think when the law enforcement officers sworn to protect them are so blatantly dismissive of their concerns? How would the supporters of the “In God We Trust” stickers feel if they instead read “We Trust In No Gods,” or “In Allah We Trust?” You don’t have to answer that—I can hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth from here.
FFRF is considering taking a lawsuit on this matter, and urges law enforcement officers whose departments are placing these stickers to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Madeline Ziegler is a legal fellow at FFRF. Find more of her brilliant thoughts on Twitter @FFRFMaddy.
FFRF is a national nonprofit dedicated to keeping state and church separate and educating about nontheism. For more information and a copy of our paper, Freethought Today, please click here.