Ala. sheriff promotes religion on social media

Covington Sheriff

An Alabama sheriff’s misuse of the official department Facebook page is providing the Freedom From Religion Foundation a chance to set him straight on a number of issues.

A Covington County resident had informed FFRF that the official Covington County Sheriff’s Department Facebook page regularly promotes Christianity. On June 24, Covington County Sheriff Blake Turman received a letter from FFRF outlining why the religious promotion on this Facebook page violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment — as well as the religious freedom and right of conscience of all Covington County residents.

Turman immediately sent FFRF an intemperate response in which he invited the FFRF complainant to “be a man” and claimed that “we [Christians] outnumber [FFRF]” because “there are 240 million Christians in the United States.”

In a follow-up letter, FFRF corrects a lot of mistakes in Turman’s misconceived missive.

Turman claims that the Facebook page in question is his “personal blog page,” but the facts do not bear out that claim. The page is entitled “Covington County Sheriffs Department” and the page regularly reports on the official business of the Sheriff’s Department. Furthermore, the page was created in January of this year, directly after Turman became sheriff, and an early post on the page announced that the very purpose of the page is “keeping the public informed of what we are doing at the Covington County Sheriffs Department.”

Turman suggests, too, that the Facebook page does not violate the Establishment Clause because “separation of church and state was never even penned in the Constitution.” “This is a shockingly ignorant understanding of how the law works,” notes FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover, “and rather alarming coming from a sheriff. If Turman applied this same logic to other areas of law, would he no longer respect citizens’ right to privacy or their right to remain silent, simply because those phrases also do not appear in the Constitution? For the sake of Covington County’s residents, I hope not.”

FFRF reminds the sheriff that America’s Founders and the U.S. Supreme Court have long understood the First Amendment to create a wall of separation between religion and government. In a letter penned while he was president, Thomas Jefferson definitively stated that when the “American people . . . declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’” they erected “a wall of separation between church & state.” In the 1940s, the Supreme Court clearly proclaimed that “the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state.”

“Accordingly, the Supreme Court has long held that the Establishment Clause goes beyond merely prohibiting the government from recognizing an official state religion; indeed, the court has found that the First Amendment ‘mandates government neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion,’” writes Grover.

By posting religious messages on the Sheriff Department’s official Facebook page, Turman also jeopardizes taxpayer dollars by exposing the county to legal liability. The sheriff’s office in Bradley County, Tenn., recently agreed, for instance, to pay more than $40,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees after promoting religion on social media and ignoring objections to the practice. There is no need to expose the Covington County to similar liability. The Covington County Sheriff’s Department page should be discontinued unless it confines itself to official business.

“A sheriff should be following the law,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Instead, he is propagating his religion on an official forum, and scribing nasty letters when called on it.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 31,000 members across the country, including in Alabama. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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FFRF is a member of the Secular Coalition for America

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