November 2015 Church & State | People & Events

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,” a Bible verse 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 in late September, Houston County Administrator Bill Dempsey advised Sheriff Donald Valenza to ditch the decals. Valenza did so.

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 the risk of a costly lawsuit. In its letter to Dempsey and Valenza, Americans United explained that the “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 non-believers or non-Christians.

“Really, it was for morale,” Valenza said in August, during one of his few interviews about the decals. “It’s for encouragement.”  

Given the legal precedent, Americans United felt it had a strong case. Unlike the inclusion of “In God We Trust” on money, which several federal courts have deemed an acceptable form of “ceremonial deism,” the use of a specific 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, Florida, Missouri, Kentucky and North Carolina.