Halt official religious barrage, FFRF tells Va. county commissioner

Mark Matney

Stop misusing your office to propagate your personal religious beliefs, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is insisting to a Virginia county revenue commissioner.

A concerned Washington County resident has informed the state/church watchdog that Commissioner of Revenue Mark J. Matney has been using his position to promote and endorse his personal religious beliefs, including on the official Facebook page of the Washington County Commissioner of Revenue Office. The site lists the revenue office’s mission in this way: “To provide our citizens and businesses with the highest quality service in the assessment of local taxes by applying the laws of the Commonwealth and the County in a fair, uniform, and Godly manner (emphasis added).” Matney posted an extremely religious message on the official Washington County Commissioner of Revenue Office Facebook page some months ago. He regularly puts up “Pastor Appreciation posts,” documenting how each week a local pastor is invited into the office to pray for Matney’s staff, office and the community (see sample post below). And Matney often posts prayer requests, Christian messages and bible verses.

Mark Matney

“The Supreme Court has said time and again that the First Amendment ‘mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion,’” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Matney. “The government must remain neutral toward religion because ‘the preservation and transmission of religious beliefs and worship is a responsibility and a choice committed to the private sphere,’” to quote the Supreme Court again.

As an elected official, Matney’s overt promotion of religion using his official title, office and the Washington County Commissioner of Revenue Office’s official communication channels gives the clear indication that the county supports and endorses particular religious beliefs, FFRF underscores. Religious endorsements made in his official capacity send a message that excludes the 35 percent of Americans who are non-Christian, including one in four who are nonreligious, needlessly alienating the nonreligious and non-Christian citizens he represents.

The Supreme Court has described the power of social media sites as “the principal sources for knowing current events . . . speaking and listening in the modern public square, and otherwise exploring the vast realms of human thought and knowledge,” FFRF points out. Accordingly, government officials must be particularly diligent not to entangle their personal religious beliefs with official government pronouncements made in this “modern public square.”

Government officials are not permitted to provide prestige to their personal religion by lending a government office and government title to religious ideology, since their offices and titles belong to “We the people,” not the offices’ temporary occupants. As an elected official, Matney has been charged with great responsibility and has been given significant trust by citizens in Washington County, including those citizens who do not share his religious viewpoint.

FFRF is requesting that Matney immediately stop using the Washington County Commissioner of Revenue Office to officially endorse Christianity, that he cease inviting and promoting pastors in to pray for his office, and that he remove any and all religious endorsements currently on the Facebook page.

“A county office is a secular space, not a church,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “This commissioner needs to be reined in immediately.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 35,000 members across the country, including over 800 members in Virginia. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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