Eric Watson, above, could not resist using the Bradley County police Facebook page to bang on about his Christian beliefs, much to the annoyance of those who did not want their noses rubbed in his religious drivel.
So in stepped American Atheists. After being alerted to Watson’s preaching by an anonymous local resident, the New Jersey-based organisation launched a lawsuit against the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office.
According to this report, the lawsuit claimed that police had breached the US Constitution, and it was announced this week that Bradley County will pay out $41,000 and that Watson will undertake not to post any more religious messages on the police’s new Facebook page.
Watson will, however, be allowed to maintain his own page, where he can post his personal views and opinions.
Earlier this year, Watson said in an interview:
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.
Said Amanda Knief, American Atheists’ National Legal and Public Policy Director.
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. 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.
The controversy erupted earlier this year when Mr Watson posted a series of Easter messages on the department’s social media page in which he quoted the Bible.
He said in one message:
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. 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.
Refrain from making statements promoting Christianity in his capacity as sheriff.
She claimed that the 2010 US Census data showed at least 40 per cent of people in the county were non-religious.
In one of his recent posts on his own Facebook page, which dates from July 21, Watson makes clear his support for Republican Donald Trump.
Trump is doing great. I love the law and order plan and the support for our law enforcement officers. I’ve never heard a Presidential Candidate mention so many positive things about Law Enforcement like I have tonight.
As part of the settlement, the county will pay $15,000 in damages to American Atheists and the local plaintiff. They will also pay $26,000 in lawyers fees. The money will come from the authority’s insurance company and not Mr Watson’s own pocket.
Neither the county nor Watson has admitted any wrongdoing.
The anonymous resident who had been part of the lawsuit said:
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.
Watson, of course, had “hundreds” of supporters.