PANAMA CITY, FLA. — Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen has faith in his “In God We Trust” bumper stickers. And doesn’t care what the ACLU thinks.
He recently held up a five-page letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which is joining the American Civil Liberties Union in demanding that the sheriff reverse his decision to place such stickers on all his patrol cars.
“If this is the only thing they can get me on, I’m proud of it. But of all the things that are happening in this world, they’re complaining about my bumper stickers,” said Sheriff McKeithen, who placed the stickers on the back of his cars roughly two weeks ago.
“We must be doing a good job or hiding it really well,” said the sheriff, who oversees a county that has gained national notoriety for its increasingly violent and unruly events related to spring break.
On Friday, roughly 20 protesters, many of whom are affiliated with a local Unitarian Universalist church, gathered in front of the sheriff’s office to complain that the “In God We Trust” stickers endorse Christianity and may lead to biased treatment.
But despite the rain, over 200 of the sheriff’s supporters gathered on short notice to surprise and drown out the anti-sticker contingent.
Many of the counterprotesters, who said they indicate broad support for the sheriff in the rural Panhandle county of 150,000 people, had never participated in a public demonstration.
They cited recent court cases and other public policies as evidence that their religious liberties were being diminished or even discarded and called the attacks on “In God We Trust” — the national motto, the motto of the state of Florida and a fixture on all U.S. currency — the latest example of such hostility to religion.
Sheriff McKeithen said the protesters’ complaints of Christianity bias are unfounded.
“I will drive to their house just as fast as I will to the preacher’s house, and that’s all I have to say,” he said. “We don’t screen people to see if they’re atheists or Christians or Muslims or Jews. We’ve never done it, and I don’t know any law enforcement agency that has done it.
“When we get a call, it’s a person that needs help. We don’t make a big deal out of it, but they’ve made a big deal out of it.”
Sheriff McKeithen said increased criticism of law enforcement in the media, coupled with ongoing reports of senseless violence, led him to acquire the bumper stickers. He said the bumper stickers remind the public that his officers are committed to morals and ethics while on patrol.
Sheriff McKeithen’s bumper sticker announcement on Facebook garnered 376,000 views by Friday. He has been contacted by other law enforcement agencies in Florida and in Alabama, which in turn have placed the bumper stickers on their patrol cars. TheBlaze reported that a sheriff in Missouri placed the stickers on all of his cars last week.
“I guess it was perfect timing, because sometimes you get to a point that you wonder what’s happening in your country and why has it gone absolutely crazy,” said Sheriff McKeithen, mentioning the recent mass shootings in Tennessee and Louisiana.
Since having the stickers placed on their vehicles July 10, deputies in Bay County have continued to receive positive feedback and support from the public.
“My guys loved it, welcomed it and receive accolades every day for it,” Mr. McKeithen said. “I believe it was the right thing to do. I start getting calls from other departments and agencies wanting to do it or thinking about doing it, and I’m thinking, ‘Wow! That’s awesome. That’s great.’
“It’s kind of drawing other law enforcement agencies into holding their heads up and realizing that they are different than most places. Our jobs are different — we work on morals and ethics. And what better way to display it?”
The bumper stickers used on Bay County patrol cars were donated by a local businessman. Sheriff McKeithen purchased 200 additional stickers, which he has given away to other law enforcement agencies in Bay and surrounding counties.
The meeting of faith of law enforcement is happening elsewhere in the nation as well. A Missouri sheriff added “In God We Trust” decals to department-owned vehicles but likewise received criticism from those who argue that the message symbolizes state-sanctioned religion.
“I am proud to announce that all of the Stone County Sheriff’s Office Patrol vehicles now have ‘In God we trust’ on the back,” the Stone County Sheriff’s Office posted on Facebook. “This became our National Motto in 1956 and is on all of our currency. There has been no better time than now to proudly display our National Motto!”
In the face of criticism, the sheriff’s department insisted that the decals were donated and not purchased with taxpayer dollars.
“A lot of negativity is coming from people outside the state,” said Sheriff Doug Rader, adding that the motto “is part of our heritage — it’s patriotic.”
Church and state
Elias Broadstreet, an atheist who formed the protest through the private website for Atheists of Bay County, said that “In God we trust” endorses Christianity and should not be placed on law enforcement vehicles. However, U.S. courts have consistently rejected attempts by atheists seeking to ban the government’s use of the phrase, particularly on money.
Regardless, Mr. Broadstreet will not relent in his criticism of Sheriff McKeithen.
“The sheriff’s office is not observing separation of church and state,” he said. “Secondly, the sheriff’s office is not representing all of its constituents equally. Our third concern is that the sheriff is using the public institution for a religious and political agenda.”
Most counterprotesters learned about the atheists’ protest that morning through social media. In a few hours, after news of the protest spread on Facebook, nearly 150 people had committed to showing up for a counterprotest.
Soon, the pastor of one of the largest churches in Bay County received an email from a concerned church member. In the nine years that senior pastor Michael Claunch has led St. Andrews Baptist Church, he had never rallied his church to stage a protest. But Friday morning, he made an exception.
“Our church is very concerned about religious liberty being diminished and freedom of speech being diminished,” Mr. Claunch said. “Our primary instrument is not protest or holding signs. Our primary instrument is the Gospel, and that’s really where we put our time and energy. I don’t think we’ll be doing a lot these, but when support is needed, we’re willing to come out for an hour in the rain and give support.”
For nearly two hours, passing motorists honked and waved at counterprotesters who held signs supporting Sheriff McKeithen. Some stood in the median, but most lined up on the shoulder of the road for roughly 200 yards near a major intersection of State 77.
As a light rain continued to fall, Sheriff McKeithen emerged from his office and met with counterprotesters and protesters alike.
“Walking out there, and seeing those great people, just gave me back some confidence that, you know what, it’s not as bad a world as we think sometimes,” Sheriff McKeithen said of the counterprotesters.
“It’s like cops. You don’t hear about all those millions of great things they do. You hear about those three of four [negative] things that happened all over the United States.”
“In God We Trust” is found on Florida’s state seal, which, for decades, has been featured on badges, letterhead and patrol cars throughout the Sunshine State. For 56 years, the motto, though harder to read, has been displayed on a state seal on the side of Bay County cruisers before Sheriff McKeithen decided nearly three weeks ago to feature it more prominently on the rear bumpers of dozens of patrol vehicles.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation recently sent Sheriff McKeithen the five-page letter asking him to remove the bumper stickers and to refrain from promoting any religious activities that may be interpreted as a government endorsement of his faith.
The Washington Times received a copy of the letter Friday, in which an attorney states that a Bay County resident complained that Sheriff McKeithen is endorsing Christianity via the bumper stickers and sheriff’s office website.
The letter further states that the sheriff’s office has violated constitutional law by posting on its site videos with religious content titled “Policeman’s Prayer,” “The Christmas Story” and “Chaplain Program.”
The “Policeman’s Prayer” was written and performed by one of Mr. McKeithen’s deputies. “The Christmas Story” features Mr. McKeithen reading the story of Christmas to children. The “Chaplain Program” highlights the sheriff’s office’s efforts to meet the religious needs of its deputies, many of whom face challenging circumstances involving assaults, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, rape, stabbings and shootings.
The letter asks that Sheriff McKeithen remove all religious references from his office and respond to their concerns. He contends that he is following the law and that his critics have gone too far.
“You can’t take my morals and ethics. You can’t make me feel the way you think I should feel,” he said. “I stand strong in my faith and will continue to stand there. I don’t preach to people. I don’t do things like that.
“Just because I was elected as sheriff, you can’t take [my faith] away from me. I’m still Frank McKeithen.”
The sheriff said elected officials often face pressure to abandon their personal moral codes.
“I can do things, and I’m in no way violating the law, and I’m not doing anything wrong,” he said. “I stand firm, and my bumper stickers are going to be on my cars. And the only thing I might do is make them a little bigger.”
⦁ Jessica Chasmar contributed to this report.