James Pearson, the Sheriff of Hemphill County in Texas, has taken his trust in God to a whole new, and wholly unconstitutional, level.
In a Facebook post dated October 15th, Sheriff Pearson unveiled the new decals that will be featured on county patrol vehicles. It’s fairly standard now for law enforcement agencies to skirt the constitution by putting In God We Trust on their vehicles and then claiming it has nothing to do with religion – they call it “patriotism” – but Sheriff Pearson decided not to beat around the bush and just say what he really means.
Hemphill County vehicles now proudly proclaim “‘I am the Good Shepherd’ John 10:11.”
Of course, this is a completely unconstitutional action taken by an executive authority. Not only does it obviously violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, it even more blatantly violates Article 1, Section 6 of the Texas Constitution, which reads, in part, “No man shall be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his consent. No human authority ought, in any case whatever, to control or interfere with the rights of conscience in matters of religion, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious society or mode of worship.”
It is worth noting that John 10 is a theological argument claiming that Jesus is the only legitimate path to God. Jesus, claims John, is like a gate that leads to a pasture of sheep. Anyone attempting to access God without going through Jesus is no better than a thief or robber trying to sneak into the pasture by going over the wall instead of through the gate. (John 10: 1-5)
The point is, the Hemphill County Sheriff’s Office is not a ministry; it is not the only true path to God, so what, exactly, is Sheriff Pearson trying to say? If he is making a theological argument (which is my guess) then the taxes that fund the Sheriff’s Office are being used to support a ministry that some may not agree with.
Now Sheriff Pearson claims, though I smell bullshit, that the point of the decals is “to honor our commitment to all our citizens and community as a whole. Also to continue to memorialize our fallen. Nothing more, nothing less. Those that choose to be offended miss the point COMPLETELY. Be kind to one another.”
This implies, however, that anyone that disagrees with the use of Christian scripture on government (i.e. publicly owned) property doesn’t honor the “community as a whole.” The Sheriff is setting up a catch 22, whereby you cannot disagree with the explicitly Christian phrase without dishonoring the community or the “fallen.” In other words, this is designed to violate and interfere with the rights of consciousness in matters of religion – if you disagree with the religious phrase, you are a bad citizen and not “being kind” to your fellow citizens. If you disagree with the Christian phrase (say you prefered the Holy Quran), then you are “missing the point.” As an atheist, you must violate your objection to the religious phrase in order to maintain the appearance of being a good citizen; as a Muslim, you must accept the dominance of Christian scripture over Islamic scripture in order to do the same.
As far as separation of church and state violations go, I’d say that this is an open-and-shut case. Especially given the recent events in Alabama, where Houston County Sheriff Donald Valenza was advised by County Administrator Bill Dempsey to remove the phrase “Blessed are the Peacemakers” from patrol vehicles. According to a post on Wall of Separation, the official blog for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Administrator Dempsey wasn’t so much concerned about constitutional violations as much as he was concerned about the fact that they would “likely lose” any lawsuit brought against them.
Hemphill County, consider yourself warned.
Robert Ray, National Director here at The Original Motto Project, has put in a Freedom of Information Act request for any and all documents related to the donation, funding, and installation of the Biblical phrase. He has also filed a request for assistance with the ACLU. This story will be updated as it unfolds.