Atheists sue Tennessee sheriff for 'censoring' negative social media comments about religion

by Gregory Tomlin |

(Bradley County Sheriff/Facebook)The image accompanying an Easter Facebook greeting from the Bradley County, Tenn., Sheriff's Department. Sheriff Eric Watson is now under fire by a group of atheists for violating the separation of church and state and censoring negative comments about his Easter message.

CRANFORD, N.J. (Christian Examiner) — The American Atheists have filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a citizen of Bradley County, Tenn., who claims the county's sheriff promotes Christianity on the department's Facebook page and deletes comments critical of him and his beliefs.

In the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga, the atheists and "Jane Doe" – named so because of her fear of retaliation – allege Sheriff Eric Watson is "depriving them of their rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution by favoring a particular religious point of view" and suppressing dissent to those views.

According to the lawsuit, the sheriff was made aware that deleting negative comments on the department's social media page that were not obscene or "threatening to public safety" was a form of censorship. However, the practice of deleting unfavorable comments continued, the atheist group alleges.

Today is one of the most historic days; not only did Jesus die on the cross for our sins, but he rose on this day! Luke 24:2-3 says, 'And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.' Mankind was redeemed forevermore when he was resurrected from the grave.
- Bradford County Sheriff's Facebook page

On March 28, the atheist group – founded in 1959 during a challenge to public school prayer – sent a letter to the sheriff about his Easter message on the department's Facebook page, as well as his past references to prayer, the death of a "man of God" he knew, and Christmas.

In the message on Easter, which featured an image of a stone being rolled away from a tomb with the title "He is Risen," the department wished citizens a "Happy Easter." The image was accompanied by the comment:

"Many of you will attend your churches for special services to celebrate this day, fill and color eggs, and have Easter egg hunts with your children. Those will be special memories spent with your family and friends. But we all know this special day goes beyond those activities. ...

Today is one of the most historic days; not only did Jesus die on the cross for our sins, but he rose on this day! Luke 24:2-3 says, 'And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.' Mankind was redeemed forevermore when he was resurrected from the grave.

Jesus paid the ultimate sacrifice, and offered himself for our sins. This day represents the best gift any of us could receive, which is 'Eternal Life' with our Heavenly Father!!!"

The comment prompted a discussion of past U.S. Supreme Court rulings, whether God exists or not, and man's "invention" of gods.

On April 3, 2016, the sheriff's office reportedly posted a newspaper article about American Atheists' letter and the sheriff's response on the Facebook page. When comments critical of the department and the sheriff were made, they were deleted. The April 3 post, however, has since been deleted in its entirety.

Now, an April 5 posting carries a television news report about the controversy and claims, "The Bradley County Sheriff's Office protects and serves all citizens of Cleveland / Bradley County no matter what your beliefs are." That post is accompanied by numerous negative comments about the sheriff and Christianity, most posted within hours of the television report being uploaded.

On April 5, the atheist group also fired off a second letter to Sheriff Watson, criticizing him for deleting comments and requesting a copy of the department's social media policy.

Amanda Knief, American Atheist's legal director, said in a statement the lawsuit is "about protection the community's First Amendment right to speak out about its elected officials."

"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."

Ironically, the term of legal art describing the desire of the American Atheists and Jane Doe is a "prayer for relief." The group is asking the court to issue a temporary restraining order against the sheriff and the department to halt religious Facebook posts and "not favor one religion over another." They have also asked that Watson remove all references to religion and Easter on the department Facebook page and any other social media outlet.

Doe and the atheist group are seeking monetary damages for their hurt feelings, as well as recompense for the legal fees she and the organization accumulate.