Atheists settle lawsuit with Tennessee sheriff over religious Facebook posts

by Gregory Tomlin, |
The image accompanying an Easter Facebook greeting from the Bradley County, Tenn., Sheriff's Department. Sheriff Eric Watson was sued by a group of atheists for violating the separation of church and state and censoring negative comments about his Easter message. The case has now been settled. | Bradley County Sheriff/Facebook

CHATANOOGA, Tenn. (Christian Examiner) – The group American Atheists has settled a case with a Tennessee sheriff over his religious Facebook posts at Easter, the group announced Aug. 11.

As settlements go, it wasn't large – just $41,000 – but it makes the atheists' lawsuit go away and changes the way Bradley Country Sheriff Eric Watson can use social media.

In May, the atheist group filed a lawsuit on behalf of two atheists in Bradley County who said the sheriff's social media posts violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The atheists alleged the sheriff promoted Christianity and deleted comments critical of his use of the forum to remind readers of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In the original complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga, the atheist group, Joshua Stevens and "Jane Doe" – named so because of her supposed fear of retaliation – alleged Sheriff Watson was "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 alleged.

In March, the atheist group – founded in 1959 during a challenge to public school prayer – sent a letter to the sheriff about his "He [Jesus] is Risen" 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. It also sent him a second letter warning of a lawsuit for posting Luke 24:2-3 and writing, "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."

That Facebook page was deactivated shortly after the controversy erupted.

Under the settlement agreed to by the atheist group and Bradley County, in which the county agreed to no wrongdoing, the sheriff's Facebook page can no longer contain any posts that "promote or further any religion, religious organization, religious event or religious belief."

The new departmental Facebook page will not allow comments and will be used only for informational purposes. Sheriff Watson will also have is own Facebook page, but under the terms of the settlement he must post a notice on the page that the views expressed there are his own and not those of the Bradley County Sheriff's Department.

Of the $41,000 settlement, $15,000 in "damages" will be paid by the county to American Atheists and the two local plaintiffs (Stevens and Jane Doe). The rest will cover the atheist's legal fees. 

Amanda Knief, national director for legal and public policy with the atheist group, said the settlement as a "clear win" for her clients.