FFRF blasts Va. sheriff over religious statements

Tazewell VA IGWTTazewell County Sheriff’s Office

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is taking issue with Tazewell County Sheriff Brian Hieatt, who recently decided to put “In God We Trust” bumper stickers on county vehicles, declaring, “We want the public to know that we have strong Christian men and women serving their community.”

Hieatt also reportedly said, “Our department feels very strongly about having In God We Trust on our vehicles. We know there is nothing we can do for our community without the guidance of our Lord.” In addition, he touted that members of the department hold weekly bible studies.

FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler sent Hieatt a letter yesterday, Jan. 27, in response to complaints from several Tazewell County citizens. “The United States Supreme Court has held that public officials may not seek to advance or promote religion,” she said. Ziegler said that Hieatt’s statements disturbingly “imply a religious test for employment, which is unconstitutional.”

Ziegler pointed out that court acceptance of “In God We Trust” has been based on courts ludicrously claiming the phrase lacks “religious significance.” The sheriff’s admission that his use of the motto is meant to be a mark of the “strong Christian men and women” employed by the sheriff’s department undercuts any attempt to argue that the “In God We Trust” stickers are in any way “nonreligious.” Ziegler also noted the similarities between Hieatt’s statements and statements made by another sheriff that were held to be unconstitutional in a federal appellate case.

“It’s hard to imagine that any non-Christian — whether atheist, Jewish or Muslim — would feel welcome in this sheriff’s department, with Hieatt so openly favoring Christianity and misusing his authority to promote religion on the job,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.

FFRF also sent an open records request, asking for information related to the bible studies and a recent sheriff’s office event that was held in a church.

FFRF, a national state-church watchdog, has more than 23,000 nonreligious members, including nearly 500 in Virginia.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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