WHITEVILLE, N.C. (WECT) – The words on the wall of the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office are written in large black font and read: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” The Bible verse is commonly quoted on everyday items, like coffee mugs and bumper stickers, but the writing inside the public law enforcement agency has drawn criticism from First Amendment activists.
The separation of church and state is an ideal the United States of America was founded on. In fact, it was an idea so important to the founding fathers, they enshrined this idea in the U.S. Constitution.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Those are the first 16 words of the First Amendment to the U.S. Consitution, it’s known as the Establishment Clause. That’s why the Freedom from Religion Foundation is asking Columbus County Sheriff Jody Greene to have the words removed from the wall calling them a direct violation of the First Amendment.
Greene was unable to be reached for an interview. However, a Columbus County Spokeswoman said: “Sheriff is booked solid for this week and doesn’t have time for an interview. He advised that the bible verse on the wall will not be coming down.”
Chris Line, a staff attorney for the FFRF responded to the sheriff’s response with disappointment.
“Obviously, that is a very disappointing response. Right on the front page of the Sheriff’s Office’s website, it says, ‘We are dedicated to protecting the innocent and safeguarding lives and property, while always respecting the constitutional rights of others,’” staff attorney for FFRF Chris Line said.
“It is a shame that the Sheriff’s Office isn’t willing to live up to that and instead they are choosing to violate their citizens’ constitutional rights by brazenly endorsing Christianity. The Sheriff’s Office serves all citizens regardless of belief or nonbelief, and this display alienates all of Columbus County’s non-Christian residents,” he continued.
As far as possible repercussions for Greene’s office? Line said it is a very real possibility that a lawsuit could be filed.
“We are looking at all of our options at this time. We will talk with our local complainant and evaluate whether a lawsuit is the best course of action to resolve this constitutional violation, but we are also hopeful that other members of the Columbus County community will come forward, whether it be to speak out about this issue or to join in any potential litigation,” Line said.
There is strong precedence for the group’s argument as the Supreme Court has ruled on matters like this in the past.
“The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibits the government from making any law ‘respecting an establishment of religion.’ This clause not only forbids the government from establishing an official religion, but also prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another. It also prohibits the government from unduly preferring religion over non-religion, or non-religion over religion,” according to Cornell’s Legal Information Institute.
The FFRF argues by posting such an overtly Christian message on the walls of the sheriff’s office, it shows a clear preference for one group of people. It’s not the first time the FFRF has taken issue with the actions of the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office.
“Last Christmas, the sheriff’s office posted Merry Christmas to all and happy birthday to our Lord and Savior. Of course, we don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying Merry Christmas, of course, but making it a religious thing, really focusing on the religious aspect is what was concerning, and just concerned us the sheriff’s office was promoting Christianity through official communication channels, like its Facebook page, and kind of just coming off like it, you know, viewed one, religion as better than others,” Line said.
After writing the sheriff’s office when that post was brought to their attention, the FFRF did not receive a response. On Dec. 14, the FFRF once again sent a letter to the sheriff’s office, and Line said his hope is that Greene would simply understand that he is violating the constitution and take the verse off the wall.
“The Columbus County Sheriff’s Office is meant to serve all citizens regardless of belief or nonbelief. Over one-third [of] Americans are non-Christians, and this includes the more than one in four Americans who now identify as religiously unaffiliated. The message that is up in the sheriff’s building alienates this huge portion of the American population,” according to FFRF.
Sister station WECT reached out to Columbus County Attorney Amanda Prince who refused to comment on the legality of the verse on the wall but directed a reporter to the sheriff’s office.
“I cannot give you a legal opinion regarding this matter,” she said.