Let me start by saying this writing is not a discussion on which religion is more Godly or who will be ascending into Heaven and who will fall into the pit of despair. That is a debate that has been waging since the beginning of time and continues to this day. This is also not a thesis on whether all the Founding Fathers were good Christians. Some were. Some, not so much. Some were even Deists. Rather, this is an editorial about the propriety of using an elected government position (Sheriff) to promote ONE particular brand within Christianity, to the exclusion of all other religions.
For those of you who may have missed it, last month, the annual Visalia Prayer Breakfast was held in downtown Visalia. As usual, various business, civic, and government officials were in attendance. Most of the government officials had the good sense to not wear a uniform to the religious event. The Sheriff’s department seemed to not “get the memo” that mixing religion and government never ends well.
There is no problem with the Sheriff, or anyone else for that matter, attending a prayer breakfast, or any other religious event, in his or her PRIVATE capacity. But when you show up in the uniform of the Sheriff’s Department, with 4 or 5 high ranking officials in tow, also in uniform, a message is clearly sent to the public and the department’s employees that the Sheriff’s Department (or at least its elected leadership) endorses and supports THIS particular religion, to the exclusion of all others.
What is an employee or member of the public in such an environment to do? Abandon long held religious beliefs (or none at all) in an effort to curry favor with the current political leadership? Hope that by joining up, law enforcement might “go easier” if a potential criminal subject is a member of the same church?
Our Founders did not want excessive entanglement between government and religion for obvious reasons. Consequently, they put protections into the Constitution prohibiting religious tests for holding office, prohibiting interfering with the free exercise of religion, and prohibiting the establishment of a religion. The Courts have taken these ideas and created the legal doctrine of “separation of church and state.” Those prohibitions have served us well for these past centuries. This country has been fortunate to have avoided most of the religious strife that plagues Europe and other parts of the world.
Drip by drip, the Sheriff’s story about the prayer breakfast has changed. Paraphrasing, fIrst, it was “I merely attended.” Then, it was “well, I said the pledge of allegiance, and then left.” Next, it was, “well, Ok, I said the pledge of allegiance and lead a prayer, but that’s it.”
It would have been better if the Sheriff could have said, “Yes, of course I went. I, along with my command staff, were off duty, we paid our own way, and we were in civilian clothes.” But of course, they can’t say that because it isn’t true.
I’ll leave you with a quote that sums up the Sheriff’s predicament more eloquently than I ever could:
“Christianity may be good and Satanism evil. Under the Constitution, however, both are neutral. This is an important, but difficult, concept for many law enforcement officers to accept. They are paid to uphold the penal code, not the Ten Commandments … The fact is that far more crime and child abuse has been committed by zealots in the name of God, Jesus and Mohammed than has ever been committed in the name of Satan. Many people don’t like that statement, but few can argue with it.”
Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
Melo is a partner with Law Offices of Melo and Sarsfield, a firm providing legal services to the Central Valley and the Coast in the area of civil rights, employment law and criminal defense. She has been practicing law for more than twenty years and is a Catholic.