CHRISTIANSBURG – The Bible verse decals that have adorned vehicles in the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office since March come off immediately, Sheriff Hank Partin said in a statement Thursday.
The announcement of the sticker removal came after county officials began asking questions about them and the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union called the markings unacceptable breach of the US Constitutional wall between church and state.
“A Bible verse… is a sectarian and exclusively religious statement,” said Sam Grover, an attorney for the Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. “Under the establishment clause, the sheriff’s office, as a government entity, must remain neutral. He cannot promote one religion over another, or religion over non-religion.
The Montgomery County decals on the backs of the patrol cars read “Happy are the peacemakers… Matthew 5: 9”.
The stickers were affixed to vehicles in March and were donated by the company that designs graphics for the county sheriff’s office, Sheriff’s office spokesman Capt.Brian Wright wrote in an email on Tuesday. .
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“We think this is a great way to honor our law enforcement brothers and sisters at a time when many seek to tear them down,” Wright wrote.
Tuesday’s email, sent in response to questions from the Roanoke Times, did not mention an end date for the decals. Wright did not respond to questions about whether the sheriff believed the display of a Bible verse on government vehicles presented a problem between Church and State.
On Wednesday, after the Roanoke Times interviewed other county officials and said they were questioning Sheriff Hank Partin about the decals, Wright wrote another email saying he had spoken to Partin and “Our current plans are to remove the decals by the end of 2017 Law Enforcement Memorial Week.
Memorial week is this week, designated federally as National Police Week, Wright wrote.
However, on Thursday, Partin released a statement that said, in part, “In the midst of National Police Week, we want to focus on those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in serving their community. The last thing I want is for this. become a distraction for the men and women who selflessly serve their communities every day.
The sheriff’s office decals arrived nearly a year after the county supervisory board voted to display “In God We Trust,” the national motto, on the wall of its boardroom. The decision, made in a 4-to-3 vote, was defended both as a patriotic statement and – at least for residents who spoke at meetings in favor of the display – as an endorsement of Christianity .
On Wednesday, the chairman of Montgomery County supervisors said he was surprised to hear about the sheriff’s office stickers. “The board is learning of this situation,” said Chris Tuck. “I hadn’t seen this on any vehicle.”
Tuck was the only supervisor to answer questions about the stickers on Wednesday and said he consulted with Partin and County District Attorney Marty McMahon.
Emphasizing that he was speaking only for himself, not for the entire board, Tuck said he believed Partin’s motives were good and that the sheriff only wanted to commemorate the officers of the fallen security forces. But Tuck said he saw a definite problem – and a definite difference between a Bible verse and his support last year for the display of the national currency.
“I appreciate the feeling and the meaning of this verse,” Tuck said of “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
“But there is a separation of church and state and I think putting Bible verses on public vehicles violates the First Amendment,” Tuck said.
He noted that the supervisors had not allocated any money or otherwise approved the decals.
“It was a decision, something the sheriff and his staff did. The board was not consulted, ”Tuck said.
Groups criticizing the county stickers on Wednesday are no strangers to the region’s political-religious feuds.
In 2011 and 2012, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the ACLU of Virginia participated in a legal battle that ended a Ten Commandments exhibit at Narrows High School in Giles County. In 2012, the foundation urged supervisors in Roanoke County to stop opening meetings with Christian prayers, which ultimately resulted in a change in policy. In recent years, the foundation has become involved in the Christiansburg Parks and Recreation Department’s decision to abandon plans for a trip for seniors to the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum in Kentucky, and in the decision of the schools in Roanoke and of Roanoke County to end the “Watermelon Ministry.” That the Roanoke Area Fellowship of Christian Athletes offered to high school football players.
Grover said on Wednesday that the Freedom From Religion Foundation would contact Montgomery County to voice opposition to the peacemakers sticker. He called these similar decals to situations where his organization has gone to court or been involved in some other way. In 2015, according to the AL.com news site, the Houston County Sheriff in Alabama removed decals that read “Happy are the peacemakers” from vehicles after the foundation and another group protested. Last year, the Brewster County Sheriff in Texas removed the cross stickers from vehicles after a lawsuit against the foundation.
Foundation co-chair Annie Laurie Gaylor said on Wednesday that the Montgomery County stickers, like those in Texas or Alabama, were inappropriate religious endorsement by a sheriff.
“It’s like he’s saying, ‘We’re a Christian organization and if you’re not a Christian you better be careful.’ … It sends a message that would scare anyone who is not a Christian, ”Gaylor said.
Officials from the Virginia branch of the ACLU expressed similar concerns, although they applauded Partin’s decision to remove the decals.
“It’s a biblical phrase… it’s right on a sheriff’s vehicle,” said Lelie Mehta, legal director for the Virginia ACLU. “So someone stopped by a sheriff’s deputy may somehow feel like you’re on my side because I’m a Christian or you’re not on my side.” Either way, that’s a problem under the First Amendment.
Charlie Schmidt, public policy advisor for the ACLU of Virginia, pointed to a letter his organization sent to the Virginia Sheriff’s Association and other law enforcement and government groups in March, around the time the sheriff’s office County of Montgomery put the Bible decals on the vehicles. .
The letter warned of “a recent proliferation” of law enforcement agencies branding “In God We Trust” on vehicles or putting religious phrases on official business cards.
“Because law enforcement officials carry the threat of force with them at all times, they must be extremely careful in matters of faith to avoid any real or perceived religious coercion,” the letter read. . “Law enforcement and government officials who wish to build trust between the public and their law enforcement agencies should be cautious of any religious manifestation that creates a barrier between their department and anyone in their area. community, including those who do not share the faith of the head of the department. or the majority faith in the community of the department.