- - Thursday, October 15, 2015

PANAMA CITY, Fla. — Despite renewed demands from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen still has no plans to remove “In God We Trust” bumper stickers from his patrol cars or to pull videos with religious content from his office’s website.

“I have not responded to them because I am not going to respond to threats about something like that,” Sheriff McKeithen recently told The Washington Times.

Sheriff McKeithen also has not responded to a cease-and-desist letter that he received from the American Civil Liberties Union in July.

Madeline Ziegler, an attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said this week that her organization is considering a lawsuit against the Bay County Sheriff's Office and other law enforcement agencies across the country that have not removed items, namely bumper stickers, that it says are unconstitutional endorsements of religion.

“We’re searching for people that would be willing to help us out with that [lawsuit],” Ms. Ziegler said Monday at foundation’s headquarters in Wisconsin. “Specifically, we’re searching for police officers and sheriff’s deputies who are being affected by this — these bumper stickers — and being forced to drive around cars that proclaim religious belief.” Over the past 40 years, U.S. courts have ruled that the national motto, “In God We Trust,” does not represent a government endorsement of religion. Despite a four-decade losing streak, atheist groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation remain determined to change court opinion on the national motto.

“Well, the Supreme Court hasn’t weighed in, and we think the courts that have come down the other way have decided incorrectly,” Ms. Ziegler said of prior national motto verdicts. “So it is a long-term goal to point out through the courts that the statement of trusting in God is a religious statement and therefore has no place on government property,” Ms. Ziegler said.

Ongoing crusade

Purging religion from the public realm hasn’t come easy. Protesters of the “In God We Trust” bumper stickers have been vastly outnumbered by counterprotesters. Also, no one has come forward complaining that the officers’ religious beliefs have interfered with their duties.

However, the Freedom From Religion Foundation may have found some officers who are willing to complain about religion in the workplace.

“We’re in talks with a few individuals, but it’s still in the works,” Ms. Ziegler said. The foundation escalated its anti-religious rhetoric by sending Sheriff McKeithen a second cease-and-desist letter after a July 27 article in The Washington Times. That article, which the foundation refers to in its late-August letter, reports on large counterprotests in support of the sheriff’s bumper stickers. About 20 protesters had been surprised in the rain by roughly 200 counterprotesters.

“Because of the media attention regarding the bumper stickers, that issue may have eclipsed the others in your mind. However, each of our first letter’s allegations requires your attention because each of them, if verified, is unconstitutional,” Ms. Ziegler writes in her Aug. 21 letter to Sheriff McKeithen.

In the two-page letter, Ms. Ziegler shifts her attention away from the bumper stickers, which have gained increasing support from several law enforcement agencies and their constituents around the U.S. Instead, Ms. Ziegler focuses most of her complaints on a gospel concert and videos with religious content that appear on the Bay County Sheriff's Office website. “The videos on the Sheriff Office’s website must be removed immediately,” Ms. Ziegler writes in her letter.

When asked whether he had any plans on pulling the three videos from his office’s website, Sheriff McKeithen responded, “No, actually I plan on adding a few more.”

Song and dance

A gospel sing, sponsored by the sheriff’s office, is also labeled in the letter as unconstitutional. The concert, which has been held for the past 52 years, benefits the county’s junior deputy program. The event is free to the public, and officers are not required to attend or participate. Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Matt Sharp said legal precedent is clearly on the side of employees of the Bay County Sheriff's Office and others at various law enforcement agencies who he says have a constitutional right to express their religious beliefs at work.

“They don’t give up their constitutional rights just because they put on a uniform and put on a badge and step into the office,” Mr. Sharp said from Alliance Defending Freedom’s headquarters in Scottsdale, Arizona. “So absolutely, they have the right to pray together and have a Bible study before heading out to do something tough.

“That is one of the fundamental rights no American gives up simply because they head into work, and especially because they work for a government entity, they do not give up those rights.”

Ms. Ziegler said the Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent out roughly 50 cease-and-desist orders to law enforcement agencies across the nation that have placed “In God We Trust” on patrol cars. The stickers were purchased with private funds.

Mr. Sharp said Alliance Defending Freedom has sent letters to those same agencies offering free legal counsel in the event that they are sued for displaying the national motto. He said if the Bay County Sheriff's Office contacts the alliance for legal help, it also may qualify for free defense concerning the videos and gospel sing.

Mr. Sharp said the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s letters are meant to intimidate law enforcement agencies into compliance.

“It’s part of their campaign to try and intimidate the brave men and women who serve in our law enforcement agencies to give up their constitutional rights,” Mr. Sharp said.

Ms. Ziegler said some law enforcement agencies have responded to the foundation’s letters, but none has agreed to comply with the demands. “That’s why we’re considering our next steps,” she said, alluding to a possible lawsuit.

As reported in The Times on Sept. 29, after receiving an foundation letter telling him to remove “In God We Trust” bumper stickers from his patrol cars, Texas Police Chief Adrian Garcia wrote to the atheist organization: “go fly a kite.”

Ms. Ziegler said another law enforcement agency wrote, “‘NO’ in large-point font, which was the entire body of the letter. It’s very disappointing that that’s what these sheriffs think of the nonbelievers in their community.”

In her letter to Sheriff McKeithen, Ms. Ziegler cites five U.S. court cases that she says support the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s belief that the Bay County Sheriff's Office cannot display videos with religious content on its website.

Three of the cases address involuntary religious issues within public school districts, another addresses public religious displays, and the last takes on religious tax exemptions. None of the cases examines voluntary expressions of religious beliefs by public employees, such as those at the Bay County Sheriff's Office.

When asked whether she had any evidence suggesting that an officer’s job performance had been impeded by religious beliefs, Ms. Ziegler responded, “No, I haven’t come across any evidence.”

Mr. Sharp disagreed. He said the foundation is attempting to undermine the Free Exercise Clause.

“When Freedom From Religion says you’ve got to stop praying when you’re on the clock, and when you put on the uniform, what they’re essentially saying is, ‘We’re going to erase that part of the First Amendment that protects your free exercise of religion.’”

Bay County has roughly 170,000 residents, and about a dozen have told Ms. Ziegler that they feel alienated by the bumper stickers and the videos at the sheriff’s office.

The bumper stickers have boosted officer morale and public confidence, Sheriff McKeithen said, at a time when law enforcement officers face greater threats on the job and greater criticism in the media.

“No disrespect to anybody, it’s just that of all the things going on in our country somebody’s jumping up and down about a bumper sticker. That’s about the most ridiculous thing I could ever think of,” he said.

“I think there’s a problem with that. I think the stuff they’re complaining about is absolutely — I almost call it un-American. That’s what’s wrong with America today, basically.”

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