Atheists Can't Stop Sheriff From Posting Christian Messages on Facebook, Judge Rules

Facebook Post
A photo posted on the Facebook page of the Bradley County Sheriff's Office on March 27, 2016. |

An atheist group's attempt to stop a Tennessee sheriff from posting Christian messages on his police department's Facebook page has been thwarted by a district court judge who rejected their injunction request.

Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson was recently sued for posting a message on the department's Facebook page on Easter weekend celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

As the suit in going through mediation, the group American Atheists attempted to get an injunction from U.S. District Judge Thomas W. Phillips to stop Sheriff Watson from posting religious message online.

James E. Bradford Jr., director of the Bradley County Sheriff Office's Public Relations department, provided The Christian Post with a statement from Watson regarding Phillips' rejection of the injunction.

"I am very pleased with the outcome of today's hearing in federal court and in the progress in this case so far," said Watson in the statement.

"I look forward to a full resolution of this matter on Aug. 24 when we have an opportunity for a trial on the merits of this case. I want to thank everyone for the support that I have received in dealing with these issues."

Eric Watson
Eric Watson, sheriff of Bradley County, Tennessee. |

In late March, Watson posted a photo with a caption celebrating Easter Sunday. The image showed an empty tomb with the caption "He is Risen."

"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," read the message posted alongside the photo.

In response to the photo and the alleged censorship of critical commenters, the group American Atheists filed a complaint against Watson on behalf of a local resident.

"[The] sheriff promoted or furthered, or attempted to establish or established a particular religion, the Christian religion, by his acts set forth herein," read the complaint in part.

"[His] actions in suppressing speech are overbroad, overreaching, and are oppressive and demeaning to plaintiffs and other citizens with whom he disagrees."

The complaint went on to state that Watson's religious post and subsequent deletion of critical comments "have caused and are causing immediate and irreparable injury, loss or damage" to the plaintiffs.

Bradford told CP that given the ongoing litigation he could not offer detailed comments on the case, but said "Magistrate Judge Christopher H. Steger will contact counsel for all parties of the lawsuit in order to start the mediation process. If an agreement isn't reached during mediation, the case will be heard on the merits by the judge."

Watson had both the Easter message and the page taken down as the litigation continued. In May, the sheriff told the Cleveland Daily Banner that he was planning a counter lawsuit.

"The first-term sheriff told the Cleveland Daily Banner, if such a counter suit is filed, it will also come in response to accusations that some of the Facebook postings were removed in violation of the First Amendment which protects freedom of speech," reported the publication.

Watson was not without his supporters, as a Cleveland, Tennessee, church hosted a rally earlier this month where hundreds came in support of the sheriff.

"Sheriff Watson did attend tonight's rally and [said] he was glad to see how many people came out," local news station WDEF reported.

"One of the speakers during the rally was Pastor Greg Locke who drove all the way from Nashville to show his support for the sheriff and how he has used his platform."

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