Bradley County settles with American Atheists group

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CLEVELAND, Tenn. (WDEF) – A group called the American Atheists has reached a $41,000 settlement with the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office.

The group had filed a federal lawsuit to stop Sheriff Eric Watson from using the department’s Facebook page to promote his religious beliefs.

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American Atheists claimed the Facebook page violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

As part of the settlement, the Sheriff’s Office will not allow any comments on the Facebook page, making it informational only.

Bradley County is not admitting any wrong doing, but will pay $15,000 to American Atheists and the plaintiffs, and $26,000 in attorney fees.

Sheriff Eric Watson released this statement about the settlement:

“When I took office, there was a “Bradley County Sheriff’s Department” Facebook Page and on Sept. 3, 2014, a “Bradley County Sheriff’s Office” Facebook Page was created. On Easter Sunday of this year, a post stating “He is Risen” was posted on the “Bradley County Sheriff’s Office” Facebook page. That post reflects my faith which is founded on the belief that Jesus Christ died for my sins and the sins of mankind. The historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the basis of my salvation through accepting him as my Savior.

This posting resulted in a lawsuit filed by the American Atheists Association and which was supported by some members of our community. At that time, I made it clear that our office serves every member of our community and our visitors. Part of my public duty is to enforce the laws of our State and to protect and defend the Constitution of our Nation and State without regard to anyone’s personal faith, ethnicity, or national origin. The case filed against Bradley County and I have been time consuming and reflect the inevitable clash between three clauses of the First Amendment. “Our Government shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, or abridging the freedom of speech….”

With the assistance of Bradley County’s attorney, the attorney for the Local Government Insurance Pool, my personal counsel, and Magistrate Judge Steger mediation was successful. The Bradley County Sheriff’s Office will maintain its Facebook Page. I will maintain both my primary personal Facebook Page and a Facebook Page which will advise anyone who visits the page that “Eric Watson -Sheriff is personally responsible for the content of this Facebook Page.” The people who visit will be able to know my personal opinions, expressions of faith and other views in a totally unimpeded manner. The programs and policies of the Bradley County Sheriff’s Department will continue.

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. IT WAS NOT COUNTY FUNDS and I maintained my denial of responsibility for any violation of the rights of the Plaintiffs.

The progress which the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office has made is attributable to the men and women who work at the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office. I am grateful for the cooperation among law enforcement agencies which exist and pledge that we will continue to cooperate with all agencies and all people who are committed to making Bradley County an ever better place to live and work.

As the people of Bradley County well know, the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office through its deputies, correction officers, volunteers, and administrative staff have made substantial progress in our efforts to make a positive difference in our community. Among other things, we have shared with the people of Bradley County the activities of the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office information which is helpful to the members of our community and our visitors and we will continue to do so.”