Sunday, November 27, 2011

Does a Sheriff's Ad in a Local Paper Violate the Establishment Clause?


This past Tuesday, the Freedom from Religion Foundation announced they had sent a letter to the Onslow County, North Carolina Board of Commissioners regarding an ad that the county sheriff placed in a local newspaper. The ad was put in a form of a letter and addressed to the town. The ad read, “All Decent and Respectable Citizens…Our society is in a big mess today because good, decent and respectable citizens have ignored the Truth of God, good common sense, and a decent standard because of an opinion given by someone with a doctrinal degree who has no wisdom… Remember, there are no loop holes or places for opinion in the Law of God, The Ten Commandments.” The local news reported that the Sheriff paid for the ad from his personal funds and has done so for numerous ads for the past 21 years. However, the Freedom from Religion Foundation included in their letter that by having the sheriff’s badge and seal, it is in violation of the Establishment Clause as it has a clear religious purpose and is carried by the backing of the Sheriff’s Office.
I believe that the sheriff should be granted the freedom of speech as he is permitted to discuss his religious beliefs on public forums with his private funds. However, I feel that in order to not confuse the public, there should not be his sheriff’s badge and seal included in the ad. He can discuss his religious views all he wants as long as it is not connected back to the Sheriff’s department. By having the badge and seal located in the ad, it can confound the public who could believe that his views represent the department. The FFRF has a valid point in stating the sheriff’s signature is, “meant to carry the weight and authority of the Sheriff’s office and of Onslow County.” The sole purpose of the letter is to urge the readers to “stand and be counted for the Cause of God”. By including his position in law enforcement in his ad he is indirectly establishing religion views for the rest of his colleagues. The Establishment Clause was enacted to separate church and state by not allowing any part of the government to promote, advance or endorse any religion. Throughout his ad there is a clear message of promoting his religious views.
In 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued three Kentucky counties in federal district court for exhibiting copies of the Ten Commandments in courthouses and in public schools. The justices concurred that this was in violation of the Establishment Clause as to a reasonable observer it would seem that the government was endorsing certain religious views. In doing so, there was an establishment of religion. This court ruling along with many others that are linked to government’s establishment of religion in public forums further proves my point that the Sheriff’s “message” to the town is inherently religious and innately establishment. Any average person reading this paper would note the seal of the sheriff’s department on the side and would assume that the message was not only coming from the Sheriff but the entire department. If the sheriff wishes to continue with his ads then he should simply remove his seal from the letter. He is completely entitled to his own religious beliefs and is allowed to voice them in a public forum but not while creating the impression of establishment, that the government and his department have the same beliefs.

10 comments:

Harry R. said...

I agree with Marissa regarding this issue. The sheriff's seal should be removed as it is the seal of a branch of the government. However, the sheriff has every right to run these advertisements without the seal. These advertisements represent his freedom of religious speech. Additionally, any citizen can take out an ad in the paper, and the sheriff should not be restricted just because of his office.

Elena T said...

I believe Marissa is correct. The seal is being shown as represented by the government, showing an establishment of religion. Even so, the sheriff should be able to post an ad in the paper, otherwise it would be in violation of his freedom of speech.

Chris R. said...

Whether the seal is included or not, this is not an establishment of a federal religion. As long as the President of the United States is permitted to say "God Bless America" and the Pledge of Allegiance contains the phrase "One Nation, Under God" and legislative sessions are opened in prayer, then a sheriff is certainly allowed to reference God in a newspaper article even if he is representing a branch of government.

Justin E said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Justin E said...

Without the seal I would agree with Marissa and Harry (it would be okay to run these advertisements..as it is an exercise of free speech). However, with the seal his comments may be interpreted as government supported. The Establishment Clause was enacted to separate church and state, therefore the seal should be removed.

Andrew Lichtenauer said...

I think there is no question that as long as the sheriff's seal is removed, the advertisement is acceptable to put in a local newspaper. The fact that the sheriff paid for the ad with his own money does not give him permission to associate the sheriff's seal with any sort of religious message. There would be an excessive entanglement between government and religion if the seal were allowed to be kept in the advertisement.

Callie B said...

I similarly agree with Marissa. The sheriff has every right to express his views with private funds, however to a reasonable observer the badge and seal can be seen as a state endorsement of a particular religion. I think that Chris's analogy of "God Bless America" and "One Nation Under God" is irrelevant because those are cases of civil religion and at least attempt to be inclusive, whereas the sheriff's ad was clearly proselytizing.

Sam S said...

I agree with Marissa. The sheriff is allowed to voice his own opinion and take out ads in papers. However, adding the seal of the sheriff’s office to those ads could easily be viewed as a government endorsement of religion. As long as the seal is taken off of the ads the sheriff can continue to place the ads in the paper, therefore exercising his freedom of religion.

TNTbo said...

I agree with Marissa on this case. The sheriff has every right to publish and pay for an ad in the paper but the sheriff badge should definitely not be included. In fact, I feel that even the sheriff's name should not be included in the ad just to avoid any suspicion that the police department is fostering a specific religious view. If the badge is included in the ad then it is a clear violation of the establishment clause.

BryceS said...

I believe the Sheriff has every right to speak his beliefs in this public forum, especially considering he is personally funding his message. Contrary to what people have been saying, I see no violation of the Establishment clause in this issue as I do not see entanglement between government and religion. I view the stamp as a declaration of this man's occupation rather than a message of endorsement. If government had the true motive to endorse this message, they would have paid for it, in which case this would have constituted a violation of the establishment clause.