Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Sheriff Demands God in Citizens' Lives


Recently an ad that a Sheriff from Onslow County, North Carolina posted in the local newspaper has alerted the Freedom from Religion Foundation of a possible violation of the Establishment Clause. The ad, for “all decent and respectable citizens of a decent and respectful society”, urges citizens to look to God for wisdom and to obey his law. The quarter page ad uses the word God eight separate times, with very clear and blatant religious overtones. The Sheriff, Ed Brown, believes that his ad is justified, as he paid for it with his own money. The upper corner of the ad has the official seal of the Sheriff on it, which the Freedom from Religion Foundation sees as a blatant endorsement of religion by the government. Brown has been placing ads like this one in the paper for the last 21 years, all with his own money. He refuses to see this as a case of establishment, but rather an exercise of free speech. The Freedom from Religion Foundation believes that the sole purpose of the ad is to proselytize and to bring people to the ‘Truth of God.’

One of the biggest issues to overcome if this is not a violation of the establishment clause is the seal of the Sheriff on the advertisement. Placing the seal on any document definitely seems to be a seal of government endorsement. Even though the Sheriff used his own funds to pay for the ad, any reasonable observer looking at the ad would not think this because of the seal. Also, this ad is not simply a statement of religious belief, but rather a plea from the Sheriff to the citizens urging them to look to god for answers and to obey his law. This ad was displayed publicly in a newspaper that anyone can read.

I believe that the Freedom from Religion Foundation is correct in this instance and that the ad is indeed a violation of the Establishment Clause. This is for two main reasons. First, the seal of the Sheriff is on the document, making it obvious to the reader that the message is endorsed by the Sheriff himself. Second, the message conveyed in the advertisement is one of strong religious background and has a clear purpose to proselytize. The Sheriff’s argument that he paid for the ad with his own personal funds, so it is not a statement from the government, doesn’t sit well with me. His official seal is placed on the document. Even if his seal weren’t placed on it, I would still argue that a message from the Sheriff of a county would be a message from the entire police department of that county, seeing as he is the head of it. An elected public official such as the Sheriff should not be proselytizing his religion to his citizens, regardless of who pays for it. The President of America doesn’t go around telling U.S. citizens to pray and find God in their lives, so neither should the Sheriff of a small county. The situations are analogous in my mind, and should be treated with the same gravity.

14 comments:

Harry R. said...

When first seeing the advertisement, I did not focus on the sheriff's seal in the corner. I believe that this seal should be removed, as this is the official seal of a branch of the government. However, I disagree with Jack regarding the constitutionality of the advertisement without a seal. With no seal, I feel that the advertisement would be free speech protected by the Free Exercise Clause. Additionally, our presidential candidates frequently DO tell citizens to pray, and this message is frequently the main platform of candidates.

Allison S said...

I agree with Harry. The seal should not be part of the sheriff’s statement in the paper because it shows a connection between a government office and religious beliefs. That being said, if the sheriff were to remove the seal, he should be allowed to express his religious views publicly because he pays to say them with private funds. The Free Speech clause thus would protect his right to exercise his religion.

Sophie K said...

I agree with the above statements that putting the sheriff seal on the advertisement create a direct association towards religion and government. If the seal were to be removed, the sheriff paid for the ad himself, so he should therefore be allowed to say what he wants. Also, I am a little confused as to why he is allowed to put a sheriff seal on the advertisement in the first place. It seems as though other sheriffs would need to be consulted because this seal represents the support of a larger group, not just one individual.

Annie M said...

I definitely agree with the above statements. To me, there is no reason to include the seal on the advertisement because without it, the same message is being conveyed. If he gets rid of the seal, he is just another human being expressing his free speech with no attachment to the government. Although people may not see the seal when they first look at the advertisement, it still is a clear violation of the wall of separation between church and state.

PamelaR said...

I agree that the ad is slightly inappropriate but also agree with Harry that it is not uncommon for religion to be mentioned in official associations with government-- At the State of the Union, the President explicitly mentions God, while clearly standing behind a podium with the POTUS seal on it. This doesn't necessarily result in a government endorsement of religion. The legal issue here may be non-establishment; I know whenever I've started a new job I've been required to sign something agreeing not to use the organization's logos or name on anything unauthorized or personal, such as a blog, newspaper ad, or website.

Molly Veelguski said...

I agree with the previous comments. The seal should not be apart of this advertisement. That only endorses a relationship between the government and certain religious outlooks. Therefore if the seal is removed, I believe that the advertisement should be allowed because it is privately funded. I also agree with Sophie on the issue of why the symbol was allowed to be placed on the ad in the first place. I would have assumed that he would have to ask for permission to use the seal before placing it on a private ad and it most likely would have been rejected.

Kathryn M. said...

Given that the official seal of the Sheriff department is present on the advertisement, a reasonable observer may conclude that this branch of government shows favoritism toward certain religions or endorses Christianity. I agree with all of the above comments that the sheriff’s consciousness and ability to express his beliefs are protected by the Free Exercise Clause. Since the sheriff paid for the message privately, he should not be restricted from freely exercising his beliefs if the seal is removed. Furthermore, the sheriff should not denote his government position within the ad to assure that a reasonable observer would not think that public funds are used for this message. However, as an individual Ed Brown (the sheriff) is protected by the 1st Amendment to express his religious convictions.

David P said...

I agree with Harry that thee should be no ties to the government whatsoever in the ad, and therefore the seal should be removed. I think this is a grey area between free speech and establishment leaning towards establishment. As a government official, especially the Sheriff, which is a position of authority (much like a teacher...but more) they should not be speaking out in favor of one religion over another, or referencing one religion or God as correct over others.

Ally R said...

I think that neither the seal nor the ad promoting religion by the sheriff should be allowed. By running for, and being elected as sheriff, he has chosen to become a part of the government. Therefore, he should not be allowed to express his religious beliefs in a public forum, in order to avoid entanglement, coercion, and religious promotion seeing as whether or not it's a Sunday, or after he leaves work, the sheriff remains the sheriff. At no point during the day, or the week, is he not considered a part of the law enforcement system.

Liz Petrillo said...

The seal should be removed. It's basically implying that the government is promoting the advertisement, which is not the case at all. Although the advertisement is privately funded, if it is put on public property, it is establishing religion. Therefore, the only way to make this acceptable would be to only post it on private property, or remove the religious messages.

Christy said...

The issue here, like others have said, is the seal in the corner. I do not see a problem with the sheriff buying an advertisement regardless of the religious affiliation but I do see a problem with the seal. The seal ties the advertisement to the government, violating the Establishment Clause. But without, I believe the advertisement is constitutional.

Zermeno A. said...

I also agree with the previous comments, the fact that people within high ranking positions in the government frequently do endorse religion in one way or another is inevitable, for they are human just like us. The main issue here is that the sheriff placed the official seal on the religious advertisement. If he were to remove this, he could avoid a lot of issues and debates by claiming his freedom of speech through the Free Exercise Clause.

Mike HJ said...

The sherrif should most definitely be allowed to post this advertisement as to not violate his freedom of speech. However, like many others have said, the seal should most definitely be removed. While the sherrif is not trying to have the state establish a religion, he is trying to motivate individuals via his religious view point and the state/sherrif seal should not be associated with that.

Jon W. said...

The sheriff should be allowed to make his statement however the official seal should be restricted. Associating the seal with religion could be portrayed as the police department publicly endorsing Christianity which would violate the Establishment Clause. The sheriff has the right to run and fund whatever ad he likes however, he should not be able to associate his personal message with the sheriffs department.