LAKELAND, Fla. — A sheriff in Florida is under fire from a prominent atheist activist organization for speaking at a local church in his official uniform.
Sheriff Grady Judd often speaks at churches throughout Polk County—sometimes up to 20 appearances a year—in his uniform. This past April, he spoke to over 2,500 people at the First Baptist Church of Lakeland, delivering a sermon entitled “Wouldn’t the world be better if everyone behaved like a Christian?”
“I was invited to this church, as I am to many churches and secular events, and you know what, the message was clear,” Judd told BayNews9. “The message was uplifting. The message talked about and bragged on how wonderful our community was.”
The sheriff also spoke on his belief that Christ is the answer to crime and lawlessness.
But the Madison, Wisc.-based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) claims that it received five complaints about Judd’s appearance, and sent the sheriff a letter stating that using his position to preach about Christianity excludes other religions and those of no religious persuasion.
“Promoting your personal religion using a Polk County government title and uniform gives the unfortunate impression that the county supports and endorses the First Baptist Church on the Mall and its religious teachings,” the letter read.
“Giving this sermon in your official capacity, wearing your official uniform, unabashedly promotes this church and its religious views,” it continued. “You are excluding the nearly 30% of U.S. adults and the 30% of Florida adults who are non-Christian. This message alienates both non-Christians and nonbelievers in Polk County by turning them into political outsiders in their own community.”
FFRF said that Judd was free to preach as a private citizen, but not in his capacity as sheriff. It also took issue with the content of Judd’s message, asserting that “morality does not require religion” and that his “claim that increased religiosity lowers crime is simply nonsense.”
But Judd says that he will not back down on the matter.
“Let me say this clearly and unequivocally: When people call the sheriff’s office and ask me to come speak, I’m going to come speak, [and] I’m going to wear my uniform,” he told reporters. “You can guarantee it.”
First Baptist Church Pastor Jay Dennis also defended the sheriff.
“The uniform represents more than the office, it represents the man behind it. It is the man behind it that I asked to speak whether he is in uniform or out of uniform,” he said in a statement to WFLA-TV.
“I would think people would be proud to have a sheriff whose life and message, speech and conduct is consistent with everything that uniform stands for,” Dennis continued. “Grady asked me if I would prefer he wear a suit, but as I said to him, ‘It doesn’t matter to me. You are the message.’”
Photo: WFTS-TV screenshot