CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. — A sheriff in Virginia has been instructed to remove decals bearing the words of Christ from patrol cars in the midst of an inquiry and complaints from two church-state separation groups.
The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office had been gifted with the decals in March, which quote from Matthew 5:9, which reads, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
However, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia and the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) soon complained about the stickers, claiming that they violated the separation of Church and State.
“A Bible verse … is a sectarian and exclusively religious statement,” FFRF attorney Sam Grover told reporters. “Under the Establishment Clause, the sheriff’s office, as a government entity, must remain neutral. It cannot promote one religion over another, or religion over non-religion.”
“It’s a biblical phrase … it’s directly on a sheriff’s vehicle,” ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Leslie Mehta also remarked. “So someone being stopped by a sheriff’s deputy may feel one way or the other, that you’re on my side because I’m a Christian or you’re not on my side. Either way, that presents a problem under the First Amendment.”
After receiving an inquiry from the Roanoke Times, the Board of Supervisors looked into the issue and also consulted with County Attorney Marty McMahon. In deciding that the decals could pose a legal issue, they sent a request to Sheriff C.H. Partin to remove the Scripture from patrol cars.
“In my mind, there’s nothing wrong with the statement itself,” Supervisor Chris Tuck told conservative reporter Todd Starnes. “Any individual can put that on your car however they would like. However, based on our legal advice, when you put, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ and make the reference to Matthew 5:9, there are some serious concerns about the Establishment Clause and Separation of Church and State and the First Amendment.”
Partin agreed to remove the decals, stating that he doesn’t want them to be a distraction.
“Our intent was, and still is, to honor our fellow brothers and sisters in law enforcement,” he said in a statement. “We planned to leave the decals on our vehicles until the end of National Police Week.”
“After receiving inquiries and a request from our Board of Supervisors to remove the decals, I made the decision to immediately remove them,” Partin continued. “In the midst of National Police Week, we want to focus on those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice while serving their communities. The last thing that I want is for this to become a distraction to the men and women who serve their communities selflessly every day.”
In the 1978 film “Sheffey,” based on the real-life story of 19th century circuit-riding preacher Robert Sheffey, the aged minister states, “[S]omeday, when the world tells us we can no longer have our religion—except where they say—and God is driven from our schools, and our government, and our homes, then God’s people can look back and know that our religion was not taken—-it was given up [and] handed over bit by bit, until there was nothing left.”