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Atheists’ Lawsuit Against TN Sheriff Moves Toward Trial

Knoxville, TN—During a hearing today in U.S. District Court of Eastern Tennessee, Senior District Court Judge Thomas Phillips asked the lawyer for Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson to explain how the sheriff appearing in uniform and espousing his religious beliefs didn’t represent the county.

The lawyer, Thomas LeQuire, of Chattanooga, Tennessee, admitted there are crossover areas between free speech and the Establishment Clause but argued that the sheriff should not be restricted from professing his faith in any way as a public official.

“We don’t object to his personal faith, but we do object to the sheriff using his elected office as a platform to promote his religious beliefs whether it be in person or on a social media page,” said Amanda Knief, American Atheists Legal Director, who attended the hearing today. “The sheriff compounded the constitutional violations by then deleting the comments of citizens in his own county and blocking them from commenting when they disagreed with him—that is the very definition of government censorship.”

Judge Phillips held that American Atheists’ original motion for a temporary restraining order against the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page was not necessary because after being served notice of the lawsuit, the sheriff deactivated the page. However, he told Plaintiffs’ counsel, Perry Craft of Nashville, that if the situation changed to immediately inform the court.

The judge also delayed until August 24 a decision on a second restraining order that American Atheists had requested against the sheriff to prevent him from deleting negative comments and blocking residents from commenting on posts on his “Sheriff Eric Watson” public figure Facebook page, arguing that since the Department had deactivated its Facebook page, Watson’s “Sheriff” page served the same de facto purpose. The sheriff has another personal Facebook page “Eric Watson” that is not part of the lawsuit.

The hearing on the restraining order will be consolidated with a trial on the merits of the case. Judge Phillips asked for the parties to submit briefs addressing the balance between the Establishment Clause and elected officials’ free speech rights. American Atheists’ requests for expedited discovery and a speedy trial were both granted.

Judge Phillips also ruled that the local plaintiff in the case—referred to as “Jane Doe” in court documents—could remain anonymous.

The lawsuit was filed in May by American Atheists and an anonymous Bradley County resident Sheriff Eric Watson deleted comments and blocked users who disagreed with the sheriff’s religion or position on proselytizing on the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page, which was labeled “Government Organization” and provided Bradley County residents with their main source of information about public safety, including road accidents, weather alerts, Amber alerts, and crime.