- Associated Press - Thursday, August 11, 2016

PHOENIX (AP) - Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s office on Thursday defended the head of the state’s social welfare agency from a group complaining that he violated the Constitution by sending emails to staffers about his trip to a religious site in France.

Department of Economic Security Director Tim Jeffries sent several emails in April to the large agency’s staff about his trip to a Catholic shrine in Lourdes. He asked employees to send their “special intentions” for him to bring to the grotto at Lourdes, a holy site venerated for its healing water.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation sent Jeffries a letter demanding that he stop chronicling his religious activities and soliciting religious messages from employees. It also said Jeffries’ assistant was collecting those letters from employees, using state resources to track responses to his personal religious views.

“It is unconstitutional to use DES staff and resources to promote your personal religious views,” the group said in the June 24 letter. “We request that you immediately cease promoting religion through DES email and do not involve DES employees in any future religious trips you take.”

The group said Jeffries’ actions in sending the emails and collecting the religious notes for delivery “indicates favoritism towards those religious employees, and disregard for those who do not share your views.”

Brnovich’s civil litigation division chief, Paul Watkins, rejected that Thursday, saying Jeffries’ emails were personal and didn’t violate the U.S. Constitution.

“Mr. Jeffries’ internal emails about his personal trip were private speech, did not bear the endorsement of the state and did not violate the Constitution,” Watkins said. “Furthermore, if DES were to adopt a rule banning religious speech in internal workplace emails, as you suggest, it would violate the First Amendment,” right to free speech.

Calls seeking comment from the Wisconsin-based group weren’t immediately returned Thursday. A DES spokeswoman also didn’t immediately return calls.

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