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Atheists win damages in complaint over sheriff's religious posts

A Tennessee sheriff has agreed to keep his personal religious beliefs off the Sheriff’s Department’s official Facebook page as a result of a $41,000 legal settlement reached last week with an atheists group.

Sheriff Eric Watson of Bradley County will be allowed to maintain a personal Facebook page for his private opinions, while a revamped official page for the Sheriff’s Department will be informational and not allow viewer comments, according to American Atheists, a New Jersey-based organization that defends the rights of nonbelievers.

“Government (agencies) must keep off their websites any promotion of religion and, I would say, any denigration of religion,” Charles Haynes, founding director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C, told AMI Newswire on Saturday.
In that sense, the Tennessee sheriff’s case and others like it are very clear-cut, Haynes said. If the sheriff was an atheist and wanted to make statements on a Sheriff’s Department web page that there is no God, that would be no more constitutional than promoting Christianity, he said.

Watson attracted attention last Easter when he posted a “He Is Risen” message in large type on the Sheriff’s Department Facebook page. The message quoted Bible verses and included the statement, “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!”

The message upset some local residents, and eventually American Atheists filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, charging that Watson’s actions had violated the First Amendment.

Haynes said that although the amendment protects everyone’s right to express religious views in public spaces, when people become government employees, they are subject to the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Because government cannot take sides on matters of religion, people cannot promote or denigrate a religion while performing their official government duties, he said.

And even if Watson only expresses his opinions on a personal page in the future, that’s still not an absolute guarantee that he will avoid controversies in his public life as a law enforcement officer. Expressing strong views on social media can rise to a level where it affects performance in a workplace — even if the views were expressed on a personal page, Haynes said.

In a public school setting, social media posts by teachers or students can rise to such a level of acrimony that they become disruptive to the school, he said, so there may be some opportunity for the school to weigh in.

“This is a new area of law that has to be worked out,” Haynes said.

In an emailed statement, Watson said the legal complaint against him and Bradley County reflects the “inevitable” tension among the three clauses of the First Amendment, pertaining to government guarantees for the free exercise of religion and freedom of speech and the prohibition on an establishment of religion.

The decision to pay damages to the plaintiffs in the complaint was a business decision, he said, and Watson maintains his denial that he violated anyone’s rights on the Sheriff’s Department Facebook page.

On Watson’s new social media page, visitors will be advised that, “Eric Watson — Sheriff — is personally responsible for the content of this Facebook page,” according to the sheriff’s statement.

“The people who visit will be able to know my personal opinions, expressions of faith and other views in a totally unimpeded manner,” Watson said.

He also stressed that the damages paid — $15,000 to American Atheists and local plaintiffs and $26,000 in attorney fees — came from the Local Government Insurance Pool and were not paid out directly from the county’s coffers.

Earlier this year, the American Atheists group said it received complaints from citizens who tried to express the atheist point of view or criticize the sheriff’s religious posts on the Sheriff’s Department’s original Facebook page. These comments were deleted, while those who posted comments supporting the sheriff were allowed to remain, according to an April letter from Amanda Knief, the organization’s national legal and public policy director.

“Defendant Sheriff’s actions in suppressing speech are overbroad, overreaching and are oppressive and demeaning to plaintiffs and other citizens with whom he disagrees,” the text of the original lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Department says.

The lawsuit also attempted to justify the need for a damages award.

“The actions by Defendant Sheriff have caused Plaintiff Jane Doe and Plaintiff American Atheists and certain of its members to suffer loss of sleep, worry and feel concerned,” the lawsuit says.

The plaintiff Jane Doe was allowed to remain anonymous in legal proceedings because of fears of retaliation and ridicule.

“It was not easy to stand up to the county sheriff and some people in my community who disagreed with me,” the anonymous Bradley County plaintiff said in a prepared statement Thursday. “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.”