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Bedford sheriff avoids bumper sticker scrape

Roanoke Times - 10/23/2017

Bedford County Sheriff Mike Brown no longer intends to place bumper stickers taking a stance on standing for the national anthem on sheriff's office vehicles after intervention by the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.

According to a statement issued Thursday evening, Brown used personal money to purchase a billboard off of U.S. 460 and bumper stickers that state: "Law enforcement stands & places hand over heart for national anthem! We kneel when we pray!" Text at the bottom of the statement attributes the statement to Brown and states he's a U.S. Army veteran.

The move comes during a time of public discourse over what people should do while the national anthem plays, sparked by NFL players kneeling during the anthem before games. Some players have said the kneeling is a form of protest against racial injustice and police brutality, while others have condemned the action as being disrespectful of veterans and the flag.

Brown said he purchased the billboard and stickers "after careful consideration and support of other veterans."

Earlier public posts on Brown's personal Facebook profile state "every county law enforcement vehicle" would get a sticker, and he would offer stickers to other agencies and individuals as well.

On Thursday, following a letter from the ACLU, he said in the statement "no stickers have, nor will be, put on our county vehicles."

Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of ACLU of Virginia, sent the letter to Brown on Wednesday. She copied the county attorney, county administrator and chairman of the board of supervisors on the letter.

Speaking on behalf of the ACLU, she stated law enforcement agencies need to be cautious about implying any religious coercion with the potential threat of force behind it, lest they face "potential legal claims that can be raised (establishment clause, violation of free exercise, and religious discrimination) and the potential adverse consequences on community policing and taxpayers."

"We support your constitutional right as a candidate for public office to use campaign funds to express this message as you choose," she wrote to Brown. "You do not, however, have the right as a public official to choose to emblazon state or county owned vehicles with an overtly religious and implicitly Christian message."

Brown has been county sheriff since his election in 1996.

The letter also references a number of court cases that establish and define, among other things, how law enforcement agencies must follow Title VII requirements within the Civil Rights Act as it pertains to religious discrimination. It also states officials like Brown are subject to the Establishment Cause in the First Amendment, which "mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and non-religion," as per case law.

"When an agency says that 'law enforcement kneels when it prays' it may be seen as sending a message that only Christians need apply and raising a question about whether employees will be coerced to participate in religious activities with which they do not agree or suffer some adverse consequence at work," Gastañaga wrote. "Such coercion (express or implied) could violate both Title VII and the First Amendment."

Brown said Thursday he expected the response, writing in his statement that according to the letter, "legal efforts against the county would be possible" if the stickers were on deputy vehicles.

"In reference to their request, and wishing no undue strain or aggravation on the county, no stickers have, nor will be, put on our county vehicles," he wrote. He added employees still could obtain a sticker for their personal vehicles, but they might be in very limited supply soon because of high interest.

On Wednesday, the ACLU also released Brown's emailed responses to its letter, which states he "had no intention of placing them on county property."

In statements made Thursday, Brown said, "I applaud anyone standing up to social injustice ... I have fought against it my entire career, as have many other law enforcement officers ... state, local and federal."

Still, he maintained he doesn't condone how "athletes, entertainers and politicians" are expressing that opinion. The billboard, Brown wrote, expresses his support of military members of all walks "who only wish to have the Grand Old Flag respected ... nothing more or less!"

"I also appreciate the hundreds of positive, and even the vile and vulgar, comments about the billboard," he wrote. "It means people are concerned and are listening and thinking about the subject."

The ACLU letter focuses on the bumper stickers as inappropriate on government-owned vehicles and also mentions inappropriate religious endorsement on government property when it comes to business cards or signs in police facilities.

Reached for comment earlier in the week, before the ACLU letter was sent out, John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriffs' Association, said the association doesn't have a policy on stickers or decals.

"It's not anything the Sheriffs' Association has weighed in on," he said.

He said he wasn't aware of other sheriffs in Virginia making such a statement on a sticker or decal.

The Sheriffs' Association posted a likeness of Brown's billboard message on its Facebook page last week, including a message from Brown detailing his stance on the issue and offering the stickers to other law enforcement leaders. It remains unclear if any agencies have taken him up on the offer.

In the message, Brown also implored like-minded individuals "to carry out some type of 'like' activity in the community." Brown is one of 123 Virginia sheriffs in the association.

Other Virginia law enforcement agencies have placed stickers or decals reading "In God We Trust" on law enforcement vehicles in the past. Contacted Thursday, ACLU of Virginia's Director of Strategic Communications Bill Farrar said those statements are regarded differently as part of the national motto.

"It's a lot trickier; the case law is not as clear," he said.


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