Sunday, March 6, 2016

Crossing the Line: Can Brewster County Sheriff Post Latin Crosses on Patrol Cars?

                            The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is at it again, but this time it’s taking on a case in Brewster County, Texas. The FFRF will be representing Kevin Price and Jesse Castillo against Sheriff Ronny Dodson and Brewster County. Sheriff Dodson is being charged for placing decals of Latin crosses with thin blue stripes across them on his deputies’ patrol vehicles of the Brewster County Sheriff’s Offices in December of 2015. Dodson stated that he wanted God’s protection over his deputies and that the thin blue line stands for law enforcement. Mr. Price and Mr. Castillo believe that this act is a clear violation of the Constitution and that it “runs afoul of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United StatesConstitution and Article I, Section 6 of the Texas Constitution. The plaintiffs seek appropriate declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as nominal damages”. Dodson has denied that the Latin cross decals indicate any kind of religious preference, however the plaintiffs view the stickers as a clear establishment of religion by Brewster County.

         This case is interesting because there are several tests, which may be invoked in order to determine the Constitutionality of having Latin cross stickers on patrol cars. More liberal justices might be inclined to utilize the “Endorsement Test”- which was created by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in Lynch v. Donnelly (1984). This test states that a government action becomes invalid if a reasonable observer perceived the action as the government’s endorsement or disapproval of a religion. This test determines if government action conveys “a message to non-adherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.” It is typically incorporated into the first two prongs of the Lemon Test (derived from Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), which we have used to discuss several cases in our class. This first two prongs ask whether or not the action: has a significant secular purpose or if it does not have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion. However, according to ThinkProgress magazine, Conservative justices do not favor the endorsement test. They are more likely to look at the Coercion Test, which typically allows governments to support religion in more cases than the Lemon Test. Justice Anthony Kennedy outlines this test in Allegheny County v. ACLU (1989) stating: the government does not violate the establishment clause unless it provides direct aid to religion in a way that would tend to establish a state church, or coerces people to support or participate in religion against their will. Under this test, it is likely that Sheriff Dodson’s crosses are permitted. Although we have not come across the Endorsement Test in class yet, we have had several blog posts that could invoke this test. The endorsement test is often invoked in situations where the government is engaged in expressive activities. Therefore, situations involving such things as graduation prayers, religious signs on government property, religion in the curriculum, etc., will usually be examined in light of this test. Therefore it could have been used in cases including, but not limited to: Kiriko’s post on Bibles being used as texts in secondary schools in Idaho County, Thomas’s post on Reed v. Town of Gilbert (which discussed religious signs on public property) and Sara G.’s post on the Ohio House Bill 425 - allowing student’s freedom to express religion during the school day.

         Although the Supreme Court has not heard this case yet, it is incredibly important because the Supreme Court Justice that replaces Justice Scalia will determine what test could be used to examine this case. Thus, the legal ruling could vary depending on the lens through which the Court decides to view this issue. Utilizing the Endorsement or the Lemon Test would mean that Sheriff Dodson’s actions were unconstitutional and a violation of the Establishment Clause. However, using the Coercion Test would substantiate that Sheriff Dodson’s actions were entirely legal and did not violate the Constitution in any way.

        I typically try rule in favor of religion on many of the Establishment Cases, however I have to say that I think this is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause. Putting these crosses on the back of patrol cars is a clear violation of separation of Church and State. Some individuals may feel as though they may not be protected by Brewster County patrol units because they are not Christians and it appears that this particular Sheriff’s office is establishing Christianity as the religion of the department. I think that this case should be an all or nothing case and by that I mean that deputies would be able to elect a religious symbol of their choosing that they could put outside their vehicle to protect them on the job. This would eliminate the establishment of one particular religious sect because different religious affiliations would be represented by these symbols. Many people view law enforcement as an incredibly coercive government entity and the presence of these crosses on the patrol cars may cause individuals who are not Christian to feel unsafe or unprotected by the deputies that serve Brewster County. I think that it might be even more beneficial to allow deputies to keep religious symbols in their patrol cars, however these symbols would not be easily viewed to the public, therefore they would not present an “established” religion to the public. Whatever the solution may be, I agree with the FFRF’s decision to take this to court. Putting Latin crosses on patrol cars is clearly a violation of the Establishment Clause and should be ruled as unconstitutional.


Rebecca J said...

I agree with Caroline that placing these crosses on all patrol cars is unconstitutional. The crosses are placed on the car by a public official who represents the entire police department as well as the state that funds their department. While Dodson argues that the crosses do not favor any certain religion, the crosses clearly have a religious significance and can show the public police department favoring religion over non-religion. The public department is not taking a neutral stance between religion and non-religion, which violates the Constitution. Additionally, the crosses are funded by the public police department, so government money is being used to install them. This case is similar to those we have recently discussed about placing religious monuments on public lands. I think the real issue behind on these cases is whether the religious symbols are being publicly or privately placed. In the case of Big Mountain Jesus, the monument was funded and placed privately, so I did not think there was a constitutional issue with the monument. However, in this case, public officials are funding and placing the crosses, which is where the constitutional issue arises. I do not think the existence of a religious symbol in a public place alone is enough to be considered establishment, but it is when the symbol is publicly funded and placed by public officials.

Natalie Kawalec said...

I agree that putting Latin crosses on patrol cars is a violation of the establishment clause because the cars are considered public property. The placement of these crosses is the equivalent of Brewster County endorsing Christianity. However, I disagree with the point made that if each deputy is permitted to place any religious symbol on their patrol car, the state's endorsement of one particular religion will be eradicated. Of those who regularly attend church in Brewster County, 44% are affiliated with Catholicism. If the government displays religious neutrality and allows any religious symbol to be displayed on a deputy car, then statistically, mostly Latin crosses will be displayed. In order to protect minorities from oppression by majorities, no religious symbols on patrol cars should be permitted.

Sara G. said...

I agree that its extremely unconstitutional to allow these crosses on the police cars. Not only does it create an establishment because public money is going towards this and the end result is government vehicles displaying a single religious message, but I agree that it can also lead to mistrust and unease in the community. People in the community could absolutely feel less safe with these crosses. Since they suggest that the police force promotes Christianity, it could lead to non-Christian community members feeling left out, unprotected, or even targeted for having different beliefs than their local police force. I also disagree with Dodson's claim that they show no religious preference. A cross is an obvious Christian symbol and I don't see how it does anything other than show religious preference. It also seems unfair to make the police officers have these crosses on their cars, essentially having them represent themselves with a religious symbol they may not agree with. I have to disagree with your last argument that every officer should be allowed to pick their own symbol for their car. Yes feeling protected is important but this can be done in the form of a necklace under their shirt or a prayer in their pocket. I feel like allowing any religious symbols on the police cars would have the same potential for community distrust as having every car sport a cross. Affiliating these safety officials with any religion can lead to distrust and I feel like it just has the potential to do more harm than good.

Thomas M. said...

I was surprised that the defendants could be seen as having a case to protect themselves after Sheriff Dodson said that he wanted the crosses to help invoke God's protection over his deputies. Even if the Sheriff is referring to a non-denominational God, that still would violate the separation of Church and State. The Sheriff and his deputies are government employees and the crosses were being put onto government issued vehicles. I do not believe that a government employee should have to hide what religion they are, but I would not accept putting Christian decals onto a government funded police car as constitutional. I also do not believe that the deputies would be more likely to help a Christian over another religion, and if they wanted to wear a crucifix around their neck, I would see that as legal. My issue is with the constitutionality of putting crosses onto a police car.