Don’t be caught on the wrong side of (constitutional) law, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is commanding a Georgia deputy.
Chief Deputy Jonathan Blackmon has been using his position within the Polk County Sheriff’s Office to promote and endorse his personal religious beliefs. Christian ministries are being brought into the Polk County Jail in order to proselytize directly to inmates, and the Polk County Sheriff’s Office regularly posts Blackmon’s religious messages on its official Facebook page.
On April 9, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office posted a message on its official Facebook page announcing it was restarting its “jail ministry program.” This post included a photo of a Latin cross with a crown of thorns. On May 31, Blackmon posted a message on the official sheriff’s office Facebook page explaining that he led prayer to open a Memorial Day service. (See image above.) On June 24, Blackmon posted a message on the official Facebook page where he explained that the office not only invited in a Christian ministry to convert inmates, but that he prayed with the ministry there.
This ministry, named Fly Right, is a Christian entity whose primary goal is to “to see inmates come to know Jesus Christ.” In a Facebook post on June 23, Flyright bragged about being allowed to enter the Polk County Jail to convert inmates.
While the Polk County Jail may accommodate the free exercise rights of its inmates and may allow private groups to organize religious events within the jail, the county and its employees may not organize, promote, endorse or participate in religious events, FFRF underscores.
“The Supreme Court has long held that the Establishment Clause ‘mandates government neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion,’” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Polk County Sheriff Johnny Moats. “The Sheriff’s Office’s Facebook posts convey a message to non-Christians that they are not ‘favored members of the community,’” to again quote the Supreme Court.
Inmates and local community members interact with and rely on law enforcement officers during some of the most urgent and vulnerable times of their lives. That’s why, FFRF insists, the sheriff’s office must be even-handed and avoid any appearance of bias. The First Amendment prohibits even the appearance of religious endorsement by government officials, FFRF emphasizes. Promoting one set of religious beliefs on the official Polk County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page violates the office’s obligation under the U.S. Constitution.
The Supreme Court has described the power of social media sites as “the principal sources for knowing current events, checking ads for employment, speaking and listening in the modern public square, and otherwise exploring the vast realms of human thought and knowledge.” Government entities must be particularly diligent not to entangle religious messages with official government pronouncements made in this “modern public square.”
Finally, the Sheriff’s Office’s promotion of Christianity needlessly jeopardizes taxpayer dollars by exposing the county to legal liability. Not long ago the sheriff’s office in Bradley County, Tenn., agreed 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 Polk County Sheriff’s Office to similar liability due to its promotion of Christianity.
To avoid further Establishment Clause concerns, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office must refrain from endorsing or participating in religious events in its jail or promoting religion on its official social media pages, FFRF insists.
“The Polk County Sheriff’s Office seems to be oblivious to constitutional concerns,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The deputy needs to quit trying to convert a literally captive audience and start enforcing constitutional principles.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with nearly 36,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 500 members and a local chapter in Georgia. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.