A Louisiana sheriff is staging a July 4 rally to challenge the separation of church and state. The second annual “In God We Trust” rally is intended to celebrate the nation’s Christian heritage, according to Bossier Parish Sheriff Julian Whittington.“Not only am I elected to serve the people of Bossier Parish, but I live here and my family lives here. I think Bossier Parish is a better place with Christianity and Christian values involved in it,” Whittington told The Shreveport Times. “I am an elected official. I’m also a citizen here. I think this is what’s best for us. I don’t work for anybody in Washington. What they do, what they say, I couldn’t really care less.”He added, “Last year, we didn’t really know what we were doing and we had so many people, so much reaction from people, so we held the event and over 1,000 people showed up and said, ‘We agree with you. For a nation that was founded on Christian values, our government was formed around it, it’s on our money, it’s in our oath, we pledge as elected officials, to somehow now say it’s somehow taboo or you have to run with it is ridiculous. We agree with you. Stick with it.’”Strong words, but Whittington insists he doesn’t intend to “push or convert.” He said, “We’re not trying to round them up and force them into anything. There are no consequences if you don’t. That’s not it at all. But, somehow, the very basic things we were founded on are now not in vogue or out of style or might offend somebody is ridiculous.”Whittington says the event uses no public funds, but he admits that it is taking place on government property. The Times reports that it will be held at the Sheriff’s office substation in Bossier.
The event also has high-profile support.Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (R) attended last year’s rally. Jindal does not plan to show up in person this year but did prepare a special video message. This indicates that the event, and the dogmatic rhetoric it promotes, has his official support. That’s disturbing, given that the event is rooted in a direct challenge to the wall of separation.The sheriff started the rallies after the U.S. Department of Justice denied federal funding for the town’s “Young Marines” program. “Young Marines” has no official affiliation with any branch of the armed services. Rather, it’s an explicitly sectarian program for local at-risk youth. Upon joining, members promise to “never do anything that would bring disgrace or dishonor upon my God, my Country and its flag, my parents, myself or the Young Marines.”According to the “Young Marines” website, members are granted an “opportunity to interact with caring adult mentors that are committed to providing them with a safe place to develop and grow with special emphasis on the love of God and fidelity to our country.”The program is directly sponsored by Whittington’s office.His sponsorship of the “Young Marines,” and his decision to host sectarian rallies on public land, lead a reasonable observer to question whether Whittington is more invested in enforcing his brand of dogma than upholding the law.Here’s what the law actually says: The sheriff certainly has the right to openly express his beliefs. But when he’s acting in an official capacity, it’s his responsibility to adhere to the First Amendment’s restrictions on government endorsements of religion. Whittington the individual is entitled to believe the view that the United States is intrinsically a Christian nation. He’s even entitled to host events or support youth programs that promote this view -- privately.Whittington the sheriff is not entitled to use the platform associated with his elected office to promote this view as the official view of Bossier Parish.Unfortunately, Whittington’s apparent confusion about the requirements of his role is not an isolated incident. Proselytization by police is emerging as a national trend, as my colleague Simon Brown reports for the latest issue of Church & State.It’s time for Sheriff Whittington and his peers around the country to refocus their energies on enforcing the law, not dogma.