Stickers with biblical verses will no longer be attached to police cars in an Alabama county thanks to Americans United.
The Houston County Sheriff’s Department put stickers on its vehicles that read “Blessed Are The Peacemakers,” from Matthew 5:9. That message encircled the official badge of the department. After Americans United got word of this clear instance of government endorsing religion, it sent a complaint letter to the sheriff’s department in early August. (The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation later sent a letter as well.)
The Dothan Eagle reported that on Tuesday, Houston County Administrator Bill Dempsey advised Sheriff Donald Valenza to ditch the decals. Valenza did so, though he has thus far declined comment on the matter.
Unsurprisingly, Dempsey said he made the decision based on practicality – not because it was the right thing to do constitutionally.
“We have been in meetings with the sheriff for the past week, and we told him we support what’s written on the stickers and we support the spirit of it,” Dempsey said. “But unfortunately, from a legal perspective, we could spend hundreds of thousands and still likely lose.”
Dempsey was right about likely losing money. In its letter to Dempsey and Valenza, Americans United explained that “[t]he incorporation of a Biblical quotation into an official Sheriff’s Office seal runs afoul of numerous court rulings striking down governmental seals that incorporate religious imagery or messages.”
AU’s letter also noted that Valenza made it clear that he supported the message on the stickers, which could give the impression that those who believe in God will receive better treatment from the county sheriff’s department than atheists.
“Really, it was for morale,” Valenza said in August, during one of his few interviews about the decals. “It’s for (officer) encouragement.”
Given the legal precedent, Americans United felt it had a strong case here. Unlike the inclusion of “In God We Trust” on money, which several federal courts have deemed an acceptable form of “ceremonial deism,” the inclusion of a Bible verse on police cars incorporated into the department’s official seal left little doubt that the sheriff sought to promote belief over non-belief.
While this case presented favorable facts for defenders of church-state separation, it is part of a worrisome trend in which police departments nationwide are placing religious messages on their vehicles.
In recent months, stickers bearing the words “In God We Trust” have appeared on police cars in several states, including Illinois, Kentucky and North Carolina, leaving critics to wonder about the cause of this troubling church-state trend.
The Washington Post reported in August that it’s hard to pin down who first got the idea for the stickers, but they seem to be spreading thanks to social media. In Florida, Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen said about 30 agencies in the area have adopted the decals. He was inspired to print 200 bumper stickers bearing “In God We Trust” after he received an e-mail that contained the phrase.
“It’s just right now it seems like in our country law enforcement has been painted with a brush that we’re bad guys,” McKeithen told The Post. “So I was trying to think of something that might set a fire to our guys. We want to be proud and we want people to be proud of us, and we know we’re better than how people portray us.”
An anonymous donor paid for the stickers, The Post reported, and McKeithen’s deputies distributed nearly 800 of them to residents.
In Missouri, Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader said he put the “In God We Trust” stickers on cars in his department after learning of them from Green County Sheriff Jim Arnott.
“There has been no better time than now to proudly display our national motto,” Rader told the Stone County Chronicle. “I’m very humbled at the amount of support behind it.”
Americans United does not agree that “In God We Trust” is merely ceremonial and deistic, but the matter is difficult to challenge in court because the precedent isn’t favorable to us. But specific Bible verses are a different matter – they’re clearly sectarian. They belong on church marquees, not plastered on the vehicles of public safety officers who are supposed to protect and serve us all.