‘They’re Wrong’: Ala. Sheriff’s Office Rejects Atheist Assertion Govt. Can’t ‘Call on Citizens to Pray’ in Wake of Tragedy

TJ Armstrong Walker County Sheriff's Office
Photo Credit: Screenshot WVTM-TV

JASPER, Ala. — A sheriff’s office in Alabama says that it will not be responding to a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) requesting that it cease calling upon the community to pray in the wake of tragedies. The Walker County Sheriff’s Office does not believe it is in violation of the U.S. Constitution as the atheist-run Church-State separation group claims as even the state constitution cites the name of Almighty God.

“They’re wrong,” T.J. Armstrong, the community relations officer for the Walker County Sheriff’s Office, told Christian News Network this week. “The United States Constitution says that Congress shall not make any law [respecting an establishment of] religion. … The sheriff’s office nor its employees are Congress, so that doesn’t apply to what we’re doing here. And there’s nowhere else in the Constitution that says we cannot mention religion.”

He noted that the state constitution itself mentions God, so urging citizens to pray following a tragedy is not unlawful.

“The Alabama Constitution mentions God four times and it mentions God Almighty in the preamble,” Armstrong explained. “And then the oath that every elected official has to take in the state of Alabama ends in ‘so help me God.’ In any court system in Alabama, the witness oath ends in ‘so help me God.'”

“We, the people of the State of Alabama, in order to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God, do ordain and establish the following Constitution and form of government for the State of Alabama,” reads the preamble to the 1861 Constitution of Alabama.

Armstrong also pointed out that U.S. currency states “In God We Trust,” and the phrase “one nation under God” is declared in government buildings nationwide every time the Pledge of Alliance is recited.

As previously reported, 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. James Madison, the fourth president of the United States, similarly called for a national day of prayer on July 9, 1812, and President Abraham Lincoln also proclaimed a national fast day in 1863.

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“They’re just trying to send a letter in hopes that we will cower down, and that’s just not something that we’re going to do,” Armstrong said. “We’re not looking for a fight, but we’re going to continue down the path that we are and do what we believe God has called us to do.”

As previously reported, 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,” read a message from Sheriff Smith. “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.”

Christian News Network spoke with community relations officer T.J. Armstrong this week, who had noted on his personal Facebook page following receipt of the letter that the Walker County Sheriff’s Office 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.

Armstrong said that to his knowledge, the FFRF complaint was the first time that the sheriff’s department had heard anything negative about the cited social media posts, and people throughout the U.S. have been quite supportive since the story broke.

“The feedback that we have received has been so overwhelmingly positive,” Armstrong said. “We have had so many Facebook messages and emails from people all across the country and beyond who are in support of what we are doing.”

He said the matter would be different if the sheriff’s office was attempting to force someone to follow their religion, but noted that such is actually impossible as none can make anyone have faith but the Holy Spirit. Suggestions from FFRF otherwise would be implausible.

“You can’t dictate or force someone into becoming a Christian,” Armstrong explained. “The repentance that’s necessary to become a Christian, that repentance has to come from conviction of the Holy Spirit. And if we’re forcing that on somebody — it’s impossible. The claim just doesn’t make any sense.”

Armstrong advised that the sheriff’s department will not be responding to the letter, as it does not desire to put its time and attention into the matter but to rather focus on law enforcement.

“The sheriff’s office is not looking for a fight. We have more things to do. We have a duty to serve and protect the public,” he said. “We’re not going to intentionally offend people and try to push the envelope, but at the same time, we’re going to be steadfast and we’re going to stay strong in our stand for Christ.”

Armstrong, a former senior pastor who coordinates the department’s Mercy Project to give hope to drug addicts, also noted that the matter is not a struggle against people, but one of the spiritual realm.

“The enemy knows that he has to shut the mouths of those promoting the gospel,” he stated. “If God chose the foolishness of preaching to promote the gospel, then the enemy knows that he has to shut the mouths of those promoting the gospel. If he can shut our mouths, then he stops the preaching, [and] he stops the promotion of the gospel.”

“We just have to be on guard.”

Read Armstrong’s latest post on the matter here.

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