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Did this sheriff's controversial Facebook post about Jesus violate atheists' rights?

Posted August 20

A Tennessee sheriff's Facebook post on Easter Sunday that proclaimed "He is risen" — a reference to the Christian belief that Jesus rose from the dead — will reportedly cost his county $41,000.

Officials with Bradley County have agreed to dole out $15,000 in damages and $26,000 in legal fees after American Atheists, an activist group, complained that Sheriff Eric Watson posted the message and that his office reportedly deleted negative responses from some who voiced disagreement.

The sheriff's original message reportedly read: "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. 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 dispute began after an unnamed plaintiff alleged that a comment she posted under a pseudonym was deleted. She later said that the sheriff's office then blocked her Facebook account before she complained again and it was unblocked, the Times Free Press reported.

Those initial complaints resulted in a federal lawsuit before both parties were able to come to an agreement earlier this month that ended the stalemate.

The Bradley County Sheriff's Department negotiated with American Atheists and plaintiffs Joshua Stevens and Jane Doe, reportedly agreeing not to "promote or further any religion, religious organization, religious event or religious belief" on its Facebook page in the future.

Additionally, comments on its page will reportedly be shut off, though Watson will be allowed to keep up a personal Facebook page; that page will note that his views are "not those of the department," according to a statement from American Atheists.

It is important to mention, however, that the county and sheriff did not admit wrongdoing under the agreement, despite the pay-out of damages. Either way, American Atheists views the debate as a big win for its cause.

"This settlement is a clear win for the plaintiffs, whose First Amendment rights to free speech and to be free of government establishment of religion were infringed upon," Amanda Knief, national legal and public policy director of American Atheists, said in a statement. "We are pleased the sheriff has agreed to do the right thing by no longer using this official government social media account to promote religion."

But according to the Associated Press, Watson has denied that any rights of the plaintiffs were violated, and has framed the county's settlement decision as a business move that was made to end the debate.

"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," Watson said in a statement to WDEF-TV. "IT WAS NOT COUNTY FUNDS and I maintained my denial of responsibility for any violation of the rights of the plaintiffs."

Watson also said that the "He is risen" post was a reflection of his own Christian faith and made it clear that he believes in representing all people regardless of religious perspective — a duty he takes quite seriously.

"That post reflects my faith, which is founded on the belief that Jesus Christ died for my sins and the sins of mankind," he said. "The historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the basis of my salvation through accepting him as my savior."

Debates over the First Amendment are nothing new, as concerns over government endorsement of religion have often created divides between atheist activists and public officials. One of the lightning-rod issues to emerge over the past year has been the decision of sheriffs offices across the country to include "In God We Trust" decals on official department vehicles.

The nation's motto, however, is a bit less sectarian than the sheriff's Easter message and is, in fact, present on our currency and has been for a long time. Legally speaking, it has generally been backed by courts as entirely proper.

Still, some atheists have repeatedly tried to get "In God We Trust" ruled unconstitutional. Read the complete history here.

Email: bhallowell@deseretnews.com Twitter: billyhallowell Facebook: facebook.com/billyhallowell

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