UPDATE: American Atheists has reached a $41,000 settlement in their lawsuit against the Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson over his use of department social media to promote religion and his censoring of criticism by deleting comments and blocking residents.
The county is paying $15,000 in damages and another $26,000 in legal costs.
Sheriff Eric Watson issued the following statement regarding the settlement:
“When I took office, there was a “Bradley County Sheriff’s Department” Facebook Page and on Sept. 3, 2014, a “Bradley County Sheriff’s Office” Facebook Page was created. On Easter Sunday of this year, a post stating “He is Risen” was posted on the “Bradley County Sheriff’s Office” Facebook page. That post reflects my faith which is founded on the belief that Jesus Christ died for my sins and the sins of mankind. The historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the basis of my salvation through accepting him as my Savior.
This posting resulted in a lawsuit filed by the American Atheists Association and which was supported by some members of our community. At that time, I made it clear that our office serves every member of our community and our visitors. Part of my public duty is to enforce the laws of our State and to protect and defend the Constitution of our Nation and State without regard to anyone’s personal faith, ethnicity, or national origin. The case filed against Bradley County and I have been time consuming and reflect the inevitable clash between three clauses of the First Amendment. “Our Government shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, or abridging the freedom of speech….”
With the assistance of Bradley County’s attorney, the attorney for the Local Government Insurance Pool, my personal counsel, and Magistrate Judge Steger mediation was successful. The Bradley County Sheriff’s Office will maintain its Facebook Page. I will maintain both my primary personal Facebook Page and a Facebook Page which will advise anyone who visits the page that “Eric Watson -Sheriff is personally responsible for the content of this Facebook Page.” The people who visit will be able to know my personal opinions, expressions of faith and other views in a totally unimpeded manner. The programs and policies of the Bradley County Sheriff’s Department will continue.
The decision of the Local Government Insurance Pool to pay the amount which they agreed to pay was a business decision of the Local Government Insurance Pool and Not Mine. IT WAS NOT COUNTY FUNDS and I maintained my denial of responsibility for any violation of the rights of the Plaintiffs.
The progress which the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office has made is attributable to the men and women who work at the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office. I am grateful for the cooperation among law enforcement agencies which exist and pledge that we will continue to cooperate with all agencies and all people who are committed to making Bradley County an ever better place to live and work.
As the people of Bradley County well know, the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office through its deputies, correction officers, volunteers, and administrative staff have made substantial progress in our efforts to make a positive difference in our community. Among other things, we have shared with the people of Bradley County the activities of the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office information which is helpful to the members of our community and our visitors and we will continue to do so.”
Stay with WRCBtv.com for updates to this story.
PREVIOUS STORY: Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson is being sued by the American Atheists for violations of the First Amendment.
Complaints about religious postings to the BCSO's Facebook page around Easter prompted initial action by the American Atheists in March, detailed in a letter sent to Watson.
The federal lawsuit alleges that comments made about the religious postings were deleted from the Bradley County Sheriff's Office Facebook page, and some people were blocked completely.
Those actions prompted a second letter from the American Atheists to Watson, asking for records detailing the BCSO social media policy.
The group says that the BCSO has continued delete comments and block past visitors from commenting on their Facebook page.
"This lawsuit is about protecting the community's First Amendment right to speak out about its elected officials," said American Atheists' National Legal Director, Amanda Knief. "The BCSO had no problem with public comments until they were critical of the sheriff or of his proselytizing at work. But the government doesn't get to silence speech it doesn't like, even if that speech is negative, unflattering, and disrespectful of the sheriff's religion."
American Atheists and Jane Doe, a pseudonym for one of the complainants, seeking a temporary and permanent restraining order preventing censorship of social media comments and preventing the use of government social media for the sheriff to proselytize.
Sheriff Watson told Channel 3 he and the Bradley County Attorney have not been served a lawsuit to their knowledge.
PREVIOUS STORY: An Atheist group claims the Bradley County Sheriff's Office is censoring its Facebook page by deleting some posts from non-Christian users.
This comes just one week after the group sent a letter to Sheriff Eric Watson, asking him to stop promoting Christianity in his role as Sheriff.
The American Atheists Legal Center is now firing back after Watson defended his religious Facebook posts on the Bradley County Sheriff's Office official Facebook page.
The AALC sent a second letter to Watson this week. This time, it concerns Facebook activity and comments.
"We started getting complaints that people who were posting anything that was counter to what the Sheriff's beliefs were, or that were critical of the Sheriff's department, were being erased," said Amanda Knief, American Atheists National Legal and Public Policy Director.
After a Bradley County resident complained about a Facebook post on Easter, depicting a cross that said "He Is Risen", the AALC sent a letter that asked Watson to stop using his job to promote his Christian beliefs.
Earlier this week, Watson told Eyewitness News he stands by his beliefs.
"We love all people here in Bradley County. We love the non-believers as well as the believers, and they're all treated the same," he said.
"If you don't like the Facebook page, you don't have to punch it in and pull it up. You can go to someone else's Facebook page," Watson told Eyewitness News earlier this week.
"That's one of the main ways to get information about what's going on in the county, and if they don't like Christianity, they're not supposed to go there? That's ridiculous," Knief said.
The AALC now wants to know why several Facebook user's pro-atheist posts have disappeared from the BCSO Facebook page.
The page has over 8,000 followers.
"I saw (the posts) on my Facebook, and I didn't comment on it," said Buddy Borden, Bradley County resident. "I'm Baptist, and it doesn't bother me."
"I used to be a Christian, but things changed," said Kristie Peterson.
Peterson knows her beliefs differ from most of her neighbors, but she says the religious posts don't bother her.
"That does not offend me at all," she said.
The AALC says they're standing up for those who did complain to make sure no one's voice is silenced.
"We will not back down from making sure that everyone's religious views and non-religious views are protected and represented in Bradley County," Knief said.
Channel 3 reached out to Sheriff Watson's for comment on Thursday. A BCSO spokesperson said Watson will be prepared to address the issue on Friday.
PREVIOUS STORY: "If you don't like the Facebook page, you don't have to punch it in and pull it up. You can go to someone else's Facebook page," said Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson, in response to the recent complaints made about his agency's official Facebook page.
The complaints center around a Bradley County Sheriff's Office Facebook post that was published on Easter Sunday. It quotes Bible verses and depicts a cross that says "He Is Risen."
The post prompted the American Atheists Legal Center to send a letter to Watson, asking him to stop promoting Christianity in his official role as Sheriff.
"I have nothing to be ashamed of," Watson said. "I was a Christian before I was elected Sheriff, and I'll be a Christian after I'm not Sheriff."
The AALC's letter cites other BCSO Facebook posts with Christian references, noting one that says, "The Bradley County Sheriff's Office says Merry Christmas."
The AALC writes: "We are hopeful that after this letter, the BCSO will see that its community includes many non-religious persons, too, and they deserve to be treated with equal respect, dignity, and recognition as Christians."
Watson says his beliefs don't get in the way of his job -- nor do they dictate how his department responds.
"We love all people here in Bradley County. We love the non-believers as well as the believers, and they're all treated the same," Watson said. "When you call 911, you're not asked, are you a believer or not a believer? We respond in the same way to all people."
Attorneys say government officials can express their religious views as long as their beliefs do not impact department policies.
"Any public official can assert their religious views without fear of retribution," said Cleveland attorney James Logan. "Public officials' religious views are a matter which they can discuss."
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