Columbia County Undersheriff Robbie Patterson did not violate department policy or violate the Constitution by speaking publicly about his religious and political beliefs while in uniform, according to Sheriff Joe Helm and the prosecutor of C. Dale Slack County.
Their response comes less than a week after the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation claiming that Patterson’s sermons were given in his official capacity as undersheriff and violated the clause. establishment of the Constitution, which prohibits the government from favoring a religion. on another.
“We are writing to urge that Undersheriff Patterson immediately cease using his official position as an undersheriff to proselytize and promote his personal religious beliefs,” FFRF staff attorney Christopher Line wrote. in the August 11 letter.
According to the group’s website, the FFRF, a nonprofit organization based in Madison, Wis., opposes “state-church entanglements” through advocacy and litigation, and has wrote to the sheriff’s office in response to a complaint from an anonymous resident.
In the August 11 letter, Line wrote that Patterson repeatedly used his official position to proselytize, violating the Constitution’s prohibition against a government-established religion.
“There are a surprising number of instances where Deputy Patterson has posted videos of himself, both on YouTube and Facebook, wearing the official sheriff’s uniform while espousing claims that explicitly promote and favor the Christianity,” Line wrote.
Patterson, who was sworn in as Columbia County deputy sheriff in 2019 and also serves as a chaplain in the sheriff’s office, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Although Patterson does not wear a uniform in most of the sermons he uploads to social media, he does appear in uniform in several, including videos uploaded to his “Christ Is King Ministries” YouTube page titled “Graduation Challenge.” , “A Call To Prayer For Our Nation” and “Who Is King In America?”
Line referenced two of these videos in her letter to the sheriff’s office. During a titled “The Old Landmarks” that was uploaded to Patterson’s YouTube page on June 25, Patterson spoke in uniform at a rally about his faith and its intersection with his political views.
“Here in the word of God in Proverbs chapter 22 and verse 28, He says, ‘Take not away the old landmarks that were set by your fathers,'” Patterson said. “And every time we look at how people use and abuse and act on things, we can’t give them any ground.”
Although Patterson makes several references to different types of flags in the video, it is not clear from the video which landmark or other symbol he was asked to speak about, and Patterson admitted early in the recording that he does not didn’t know what was going on. with what he called “the flag thing”.
But Patterson spoke of his faith, his belief that the country was founded on Christian principles and his thoughts on the “…violent secularization of this country that has removed every ounce of God and piety from the school system, from our history. … ”
Line also pointed to a video from May, when Patterson gave a sermon in uniform at Dayton’s National Day of Prayer celebrations and said that Jesus Christ is the “only answer this little town has, the answer this nation a”, to the problems they face.
“While Undersheriff Patterson is free to express and promote his own religious beliefs in a personal capacity, it is unconstitutional to do so in his official capacity as undersheriff,” Line wrote.
Echoes of Bremerton, Spokane
In an interview on Tuesday, Aug. 16, Slack, the Columbia County attorney, said he doesn’t believe Patterson’s actions violate the Constitution, especially given recent court rulings at the state and federal levels.
Slack pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District earlier this summer.
In late June, the court voted 6-3 in favor of Joseph Kennedy, a former assistant soccer coach who was placed on administrative leave by the district in 2015 after refusing to stop praying with students on the field after the matches. The district feared it risked “constitutional liability” under the Establishment Clause because of Kennedy’s actions, according to court documents.
The Supreme Court ruled that Kennedy’s religious expression was protected by the First Amendment and that the government was not required to “suppress such religious expression” to prevent students from feeling compelled to participate, as the district l had supported.
“I think it’s changed, no pun intended, the realm of religious expression cases for public servants,” Slack said.
In a brief interview, Line said that although the Kennedy decision changed precedent, it was unclear how it would apply to other cases. Line argued that the majority opinion was based on a misrepresentation of what Kennedy had actually done, but even in that context the decision was specific to the facts of the case and could not necessarily be applied more broadly. .
Slack also pointed to state-level precedent protecting religious expression by public employees, with the Washington State Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in Sprague v. Spokane Valley Fire Department.
In 2012, the department fired fire captain Jon Sprague for posting religious messages on an employee message board that was often used for nonwork-related messages. Six years later, the state Supreme Court ruled that the department violated Sprague’s First Amendment rights by firing him for the religious nature of his posts.
“To generalize, this marks a pretty significant shift from what for several decades was the focus on the Establishment Clause to a greater emphasis on the Protection Clause,” Slack said.
Equal and fair treatment
Beyond the constitutionality of Patterson’s uniformed sermons, Line argued that they created the perception that the sheriff’s office would not treat residents of different faiths equally.
“As Deputy Sheriff, Mr. Patterson serves a diverse population of religious and non-religious citizens,” Line wrote. “By delivering official sermons espousing Christianity, Undersheriff Patterson gives the impression that he – and your entire office – is biased toward citizens who share his religious beliefs and hostile toward those who do not.”
Although Line wrote in her letter to the sheriff’s office that Patterson would have been on duty during the June 25 sermon, Helm denied this.
“One thing to clarify, he does them in his spare time.”
As long as his employees aren’t engaging in “illegal or immoral behavior,” Helm said he doesn’t monitor their off-duty activities.
While Patterson serves as chaplain to the Sheriff’s Office and interfaces with a number of faith communities in this role, he does so to further the office’s goal “to fight crime and foster relationships in the community,” Helm said.
Slack and Helm also argued that Patterson did not speak on behalf of the department during his sermons simply because he was in uniform, comparing this to a member of the military wearing his uniform at a religious function.
“The facts of what happened here, as far as I understand them, are that Deputy Patterson does things in his spare time – as a person who also happens to be an Undersheriff in the office of the Columbia County Sheriff — instead of representing the sheriff’s office,” Slack said.
“It’s not some incidental thing where (Patterson) just wants to shoot a video really quickly and forgot to take his uniform off after work or something, where it’s just a coincidence,” said Line. “He very clearly wants people to believe that this is the sheriff’s office talking and not just him as a person”
Helm insisted that Patterson and the rest of the sheriff’s office treat county residents fairly, regardless of their religion.
“We treat everyone fairly, regardless of their religious or non-religious beliefs,” he said. “I’ve never had anyone raise that concern with me since I’ve been sheriff.”