JASPER, Ala. — An Alabama sheriff’s office says that it “won’t bow” to the bidding of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) after it received a letter requesting that Sheriff Nick Smith cease promoting prayer on social media as it favors religion over non-religion.
FFRF contacted Sheriff Nick Smith of the Walker County Sheriff’s Office on Nov. 26 to advise that a citizen had expressed concern that Smith’s office “has a pattern of calling on citizens to pray during times of tragedy.”
“We write to encourage your office to use more inclusive language when posting on social media,” it wrote.
Specifically, FFRF pointed to two recent posts: One lamented the tragic shooting death of fellow Sheriff “Big John” Williams and commented, “Our prayers are with the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office family as they deal with this senseless tragedy.” Another was an official statement regarding a 14-year-old boy who was accidentally hit by a sheriff’s deputy as the teen was riding his four wheeler.
“It’s at this very trying time that we, as a county, should fall to our knees and pray fervently for mercy and peace,” Smith urged. “Now is not the time to place blame. Not on the deputy, not on the young boy, and most definitely not on his parents.”
“Instead of wasting our breath condemning and judging, we all need to use it to cry out for God to place His hand on this young boy, and return him home to his family [and] to bring peace and calm to a deputy who is absolutely broken,” he continued.
“As your sheriff, I’m responsible for speaking for my department, and all I ask is that you pray. Pray hard, and pray from the deepest parts of your heart, because there are two good people that need it now more than ever.”
FFRF said that while it found it commendable for the sheriff to support those in mourning, “a senseless and tragic death is not an excuse to disregard the Constitution, which prohibits government entities like the sheriff’s office from promoting religious activities.”
“By couching its posts in specific religious terminology, the Walker County Sheriff’s Office is excluding a significant portion of the community,” it also asserted. “[B]y calling on a God to intervene, the sheriff’s office is sending a message to nonreligious citizens that they are outsiders within their own community and that their participation in the healing process is not valued.”
FFRF told Smith that he is free to personally turn to religion in trying times, but he “cannot encourage others to do the same.”
“Observing a strict separation of Church and State excludes no one and honors the First Amendment,” the organization contended. “It is not the government’s job to promote religion over non-religion.”
However, T.J. Armstrong, the community relations officer with the Walker County Sheriff’s Office, took to social media (his personal page) on Tuesday to note that Smith would not be backing down.
“We consider it a great honor to be considered and to have received a wonderful letter from the ‘Freedom From Religion’ organization. Proud to have a sheriff that won’t bow to political pressure or the devices of the enemy!” he wrote.
“As our Chief Deputy Anthony Leach quoted from Matthew 16: ‘Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.'”
Armstrong also told local television station CBS 42 that he doesn’t see the department promoting a singular religion by calling the community to prayer.
“I believe that when we ask people to pray, people see our hearts and they see that compassion and they respond to that,” he stated.
As previously reported, while some state that God and government must remain separated, others note that the nation was founded by many who believed that America could not expect to be blessed if it failed to acknowledge and honor Almighty God.
On March 23, 1798 — less than 12 years after the signing of the U.S. Constitution — John Adams, the second president of the United States, called for a day of national repentance, prayer and fasting.
“[T]he safety and prosperity of nations ultimately and essentially depend on the protection and the blessing of Almighty God, and the national acknowledgment of this truth is not only an indispensable duty which the people owe to Him, but a duty whose natural influence is favorable to the promotion of that morality and piety without which social happiness cannot exist nor the blessings of a free government be enjoyed,” he wrote.
James Madison, the fourth president of the United States, similarly called for a national day of prayer on July 9, 1812.
“I do therefore recommend the third Thursday in August next as a convenient day to be set apart for the devout purposes of rendering the Sovereign of the universe and the Benefactor of mankind the public homage due to His holy attributes; of acknowledging the transgressions which might justly provoke the manifestations of His divine displeasure; of seeking His merciful forgiveness and His assistance in the great duties of repentance…”
President Abraham Lincoln also proclaimed a national fast day in 1863.
“[I]t is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord,” his proclamation read.
“[I]nsomuch we know that by His Divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people,” Lincoln said.