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Tennessee Sheriff Settles Lawsuit over Religious Proselytization

The Bradley County Sheriff's Office (BCSO) in Tennessee agreed to a settlement to resolve a lawsuit and end the use of its Facebook page to promote or further religious statements. In addition to the settlement terms that regulate Facebook postings, the Sheriff’s Office paid $41,000 in damages and attorney fees.

The lawsuit was filed by New Jersey-based American Atheists and an anonymous Bradley County resident, due to a dispute that arose after Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson posted an Easter message in March 2016 titled, “He is Risen.” The “He” referred to Jesus. Below the headline, Watson “wrote or sanctioned the writing that the day is special far beyond ‘special services’ and Easter egg hunts, hitting his main point: ‘Jesus die[d] on the cross for our sins’ and ‘rose’ from the dead and cited verses from The Bible, with a link to scripture services,” the complaint stated.

American Atheists sent Sheriff Watson a letter on March 28, 2016, complaining that the “‘He is Risen’ article evangelized Easter inappropriately on a governmental social media site.” It also cited incidents where Watson used “BCSO’s Facebook page to evangelize and proselytize the Sheriff’s faith.”

The letter resulted in an April 2, 2016 newspaper article that was subsequently posted on BCSO’s Facebook page. Two days later, American Atheists received complaints that comments “supportive of the Atheists point of view and critical of the Sheriff’s Office” had been deleted from BCSO’s Facebook page.

The anonymous plaintiff, identified as Jane Doe in the complaint, had two Facebook accounts. One was anonymous for the purpose of commenting on social issues and playing games; the other was in her real name. After she started negatively commenting on the BCSO’s Facebook page anonymously, that account was blocked. When she complained to the mayor’s office, the account in her real name was also blocked that day. Within hours of contacting the BCSO’s director of administration, her real name account was unblocked but the anonymous account remained blocked. After Doe posted comments that BCSO was deleting negative comments, those posts were deleted, too.

American Atheists and Doe filed suit in federal court on May 6, 2016 and the parties quickly reached a settlement, according to an August 2016 news report. The agreement specified that the BCSO will permanently close its Facebook page and create a new one that will not be used to “promote or further any religion, religious organization, religious event, or religious belief.” The new Facebook page will be informational only and not allow comments. The settlement also provides for $15,000 in damages payable to the plaintiffs plus $26,000 for their attorney fees.

“I have always said that constitutional rights are worth fighting for, and I am proud that when tested, I stood by that principle,” Jane Doe stated. “It was not easy to stand up to the county sheriff and some people in my community who disagreed with me. Despite negative backlash, I do not regret taking action against governmental censorship. If you don’t stand up for yourself, you risk losing your rights.” 



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