Saturday, November 26, 2011

Freedom From Religion or The Free Exercise Of…

The Freedom From Religion Foundation claims Onslow County Sheriff Ed Brown of North Carolina violated the establishment clause by purchasing an ad in The Daily News. The ad is addressed to “All Decent and Respectable Citizens of a Decent and Respectful Society” and preaches that wisdom does not come from books but only from God. “When America turns back to God’s Law… good and decent things will turn around for All Americans.” He signs the ad, “A caring and serving Sheriff, Ed Brown.”

The FFRF, an association protecting atheists and agnostics, requested that Brown no longer be allowed to take out ads in the future. In addition, they questioned exactly where the money for the ad came from. Brown responded in the article that he paid directly out of pocket. Yet the FFRF had more concerns. They said the ad’s only purpose is to proselytize religion and it is unconstitutional for the government, with Sherriff Brown as an agent, to be endorsing religion.

This case is a perfect example of when the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause conflict. If this case were viewed through the Establishment Clause, one would need to question whether this ad constituted the government endorsing religion or one religion over others. If this case were viewed through the Free Exercise Clause, one would need to question whether preventing Sherriff Brown from purchasing ads in the future limits his free exercise of religion.

If this case were being analyzed through the lens of the Establishment Clause, with attention to avoiding the state becoming involved in religious affairs, he may decide that the Sherriff proselytizing is too close of a connection between law enforcement and religious endorsement. This fails the Lemon test in that there is no secular purpose for the ad. Sherriff Brown does not deny the religious intent and the multiple mentions of God make the endorsement of religion clear.

This case would pass the excessive entanglement component. He wrote the letter and used personal funds from his salary. Although his salary comes from the government, the money was first given to Sherriff Brown to dispense as he pleased. This indirect transfer of funds from the government to “support” religion has been deemed acceptable in cases like Everson v. Board of Education (buses to parochial schools) and Cochran v. Board of Education (school books for parochial schools.) This separation between government funds and involvement allows us to see another side to this case.

Seeing no direct connection between the government and religious endorsement here, I choose to approach this case evaluating his right to free exercise. He is employed by the government but is not using government funds to sponsor this advertisement. It is up to Sherriff Brown to decide how he spends his money, and taxpayers cannot ask someone to be unreligious when they enter a public office or service sector. Yet when does it cross the line to use a power position to endorse religion? In other words, is he writing as Sherriff Brown or ordinary citizen Ed Brown? And does it matter which?

This question has been raised when examining the religiosity of schoolteachers, inside and outside of the classroom. We have questioned whether teachers, in their daily lives outside the classroom should be able to express their religious beliefs in a public manner. This is a more sensitive issue than the current case in question.

Sherriff Brown took out an ad in a media outlet directed toward adult members of the community. The reasonable observer would know that he is not speaking for the entire department or the United States government. As an individual he is entitled to having his own religious beliefs even if the government employs him. In addition, it is unconstitutional to ask to him to give up rights that members of the rest of the community have.

Although his message is clearly religious, it does not speak of his governmental role in provide religion for the public. He urges members of the community to believe in God just as people can preach in public places, write religiously inspired letters to the editor, or openly participate in religious groups in the community. If he were forbidden to send other ads his free exercise of religion would be limited.


Harry R. said...

I agree with Zoey and believe that this advertisement should be allowed. The sheriff has the right to express his beliefs in the public sphere regardless of his position within the government. The advertisement repeatedly says "I," not "your government." I believe that a reasonable observer would recognize the advertisement as representing the sheriff's personal beliefs. He has the free exercise right to publicize these beliefs without undue restrictions which would not be present were he not the sheriff.

Christopher J. said...

Looking at this case from an establishment standpoint, the issue that needs to be addressed is whether Ed Brown took out the ad using his rank of Sheriff or merely his title of Sheriff. Much like how politicians retain their titles after leaving office (for example, George Bush still being referred to as ‘President Bush’ even though he is not the President anymore), those with title and/or rank may introduce themselves using their honorific even in non-official capacities. Had Sheriff Brown taken out the ad using his rank of Sheriff, there could be an establishment issue because him using his rank would be using the power of the government to advocate religious practices. However, if he were merely introducing himself using his ‘Sheriff’ title, there would be no establishment issue.