A Tennessee county Sheriff will pay an atheist group $15,000, plus another $26,000 in legal fees, because the sheriff posted the words “He Is Risen” on the county sheriff’s Facebook page last Easter, WTVC (Chattanooga) is reporting.
The words “He Is Risen” refer to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which Christians celebrate on Easter Sunday, and Sheriff Eric Watson shared them on the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office’s (BCS) official Facebook page. However, by posting those words on a government-sponsored social media page, according to the group American Atheists, Watson violated the First Amendment, which says that the government cannot promote religion.
Atheists can’t stop Tennessee sheriff Eric Watson from posting Christian messages on Facebook, Judge rules…… pic.twitter.com/EZHWZCsKDq
— uninewswatch (@uninewswatch) June 28, 2016
Almost immediately, the backlash began on the sheriff’s post. Several commenters began taking the sheriff to task for posting such an overtly religious message on the Facebook page. However, instead of deleting the post, Watson doubled down: he and other staffers deleted critical comments about the post, as well as any other critical comments elsewhere on the department’s Facebook page, and banned those users who had posted critical comments.
An anonymous Bradley County resident contacted atheists’ rights group American Atheists, and they filed a lawsuit. The suit alleged that Watson and the County violated the anonymous resident’s First Amendment rights by posting the religious message, as well as engaged in a pattern of censorship by deleting critical posts, according to a May 9 WTVC report.
At the time, American Atheists said the lawsuit was less about the “He Is Risen” message and more about the later censorship.
“This lawsuit is about protecting the community’s First Amendment right to speak out about its elected officials. 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.”
Watson, for his part, refused to back down, telling a local newspaper at the time that he fully intended to use his position as Sheriff to proselytize.
— Carrie Geren Scoggin (@CarrieGScoggins) April 21, 2016
This week, American Atheists and the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office reached a settlement. The County will pay $15,000 in damages to the atheist group, plus $26,000 in legal fees. Further, moving forward, the official BCSO Facebook page will be for information only, and will not be used to “promote or further any religion, religious organization, religious event or religious belief” (although one post on the current BCSO Facebook page notes that they are “praying” for the family of a fallen officer from another department). Comments will be disabled on the department’s new Facebook page.
Watson, for his part, will be allowed to maintain his own personal Facebook page that represents his own views and not necessarily the views of the department. As of this writing, Watson’s most recent post on his personal page was from late July.
In a statement, Amanda Knief, National Legal and Public Policy Director of American Atheists, praised the outcome of this week’s settlement.
“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.”
Watson, in his own statement, assured the public that the settlement money was paid out from insurance funds and not county funds or his own personal funds.
Do you believe the Tennessee sheriff was wrong to use the department’s official Facebook page to post a religious message?
[Image via Shutterstock/JeremyWhat]