A sheriff in Onslow County, N.C. is taking heat from a national atheist organization after he purchased an advertisement in the local newspaper declaring that “the Truth of God” is greater than the opinions of those who hold doctoral degrees.
"I don't make it any secret. I am a Christian, and I'm referred to by the reporters with the local papers as a 'devout Christian.' I think there's only one way to be a Christian, and that is to be exactly what you feel like Christ wants you to be,” said Sheriff Ed Brown in an interview with The Christian Post on Monday.
The advertisement, which is written in letter format and is addressed to “All Decent and Respectable Citizens of a Decent and Respectable Society,” features the county sheriff's logo and is signed by Brown. In the ad he states that American citizens have a tendency to trust men who are highly educated rather than God (though he mistakenly refers to them as those with “doctrinal” degrees rather than those with “doctoral” degrees).
“Wisdom comes from God only,” he wrote in the ad which appeared in The Daily News in Jacksonville, N.C. “When America turns back to God's Law and man's standards established from God's Law, good and decent things will turn around for All Americans.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to the Onslow County Board of Commissioners on Nov. 16, asking the board to stop the sheriff from creating any similar advertisements in the future. The FFRF has also asked for Brown to issue an apology, and says the board should take disciplinary action against him.
“The Sheriff's use of his official badge and seal, naming Onslow County, in this letter was unconstitutional,” wrote Patrick C. Elliott, staff attorney for FFRF.
“Additionally, from a policy point of view, it is absurd for an officer of human law to be preaching 'God's Law' and 'the Law of God, The Ten Commandments' from his official post,” Elliot added. 'We are fortunate in this country to be free from religious police.”
But Brown says he never thought he was endorsing any religion in the ad.
“If you look at that ad, it was a standard rather than a religion,” Brown said. “And I do endorse a good decent standard ... I don't look at it as endorsing any religion but I do believe it's necessary that we have a standard that is, and should be, not only endorsed but lived by.”
One of the other concerns of the FFRF was whether or not Brown used taxpayer dollars to purchase the ad. They have asked the board of commissioners to find out where the money came from and report back to their organization.
"Since ... March of this year I've probably spent $10,000 to $12,000 of my own money, out of my own pocket, doing things for this county, and that was my own money that I did that with,” said Brown. “I don't spend the taxpayers’ money. I spend my money.”
Brown, who was first elected as county sheriff in 1990, says he has spent an estimated $30,000 to $40,000 on ads over the last 20 years. Many of them are designed to be “positive encouragement to people,” he says, and he has a right to post pay for them if he so chooses.
"Don't we have a freedom of religion also?” he asked. “Well, I've got a freedom I believe. I didn't lose it when I got elected 21 years ago.”
"The Freedom From Religion Foundation, just because they're offended by something like this, they don't have any standing to challenge something like that,” Kevin Theriot, senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, told The Christian Post on Tuesday.
Theriot says the sheriff didn't do anything illegal because he spent his own money on the ad, so the FFRF and other individuals who might have been offended can't do much about it.
“If they don't like what the sheriff did,” he said, “they can vote him out of office.”
Mathew Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel and director of the Liberty Center for Law and Policy, told The Christian Post that Brown should be careful about his use of the sheriff's logo, however.
"I don't think he violated the Establishment Clause because he's acting as an individual, but there may be state and local laws that regulate what you can do with official government and county seals,” said Staver.
Staver says the U.S. Supreme Court cases dealing with the Establishment Clause of the Constitution have only resulted in confusion and unnecessary restrictions. He also says letters from organizations like FFRF, ACLU and other similar organizations “have ultimately resulted in silencing people, where the law is clearly already on their side, but the letters intimidate them and threaten legal action.”
The Supreme Court needs to “bring some sanity and reasonableness back to the historical understanding and intent of the First Amendment,” Staver said.
After news of the controversy broke, several individuals began posting statements of support for the sheriff on his Facebook page.
“Sheriff Brown, just read your letter & the controversy surrounding it. My family & I thank you for your words of honesty & truth. Somebody had to say it! Proud to call you my Sheriff!!” wrote one individual.
“I have been struggling a bit with my faith lately and your strong stand has helped me see the Truth of God on this Thanksgiving morning. May God bless you and your family as you celebrate today,” wrote another last Thursday.
The chairman of the Onslow County Board of Commissioners, W.C. Jarman, did not respond to an interview request by the time of publication.