Bradley County: Civil liberties experts criticize Bradley sheriff's blog

Bradley County: Civil liberties experts criticize Bradley sheriff's blog

January 17th, 2009 by Todd South in Local Regional News

Bradley County Sheriff Tim Gobble has drawn criticism from civil libertians in California and Washington, D.C., for the Christian statements in one of his weekly blog postings.

Sheriff Gobble, who writes a column on the Bradley County Sheriff's Office Web site each week, posted one on Jan. 8 titled "Our Christian Heritage."

The blog caught the attention of Rob Boston, senior policy analyst for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an independent Washington, D.C.-based group. Mr. Boston posted a link to the column and a rebuttal of its message that the United States is a Christian nation.

"A sheriff's job is to ensure the public safety of a community," Mr. Boston said in a telephone interview. "He's not supposed to be pushing the Christian nation claptrap."

Peter Irons, a civil liberties law professor at the University of California, San Diego, was alerted to the column on the Americans United Web site. He said it "sends a message that Bradley County is a Christian county, and the sheriff is endorsing that."

"If he wanted to print that in a church bulletin, that's fine," Mr. Irons said. "But this is an official taxpayer-funded Web site."

Sheriff Gobble, who said he stands behind the column, dismissed his critics.

"I'm not sure we need to get overly concerned about what some extreme left-wing liberal guy out in California has to say about us here in Tennessee," Sheriff Gobble said.

The column details examples of what the sheriff calls Christian heritage in the founding and history of the United States. It says the sheriff opens the Bradley County jail to "churches and ministries in our community who want to hold Bible studies for those who are incarcerated."

Sheriff Gobble said he sees the Bible studies program as a positive influence. It is completely voluntary, he said, and people of all faiths may participate as long as presenters pass criminal background checks.

Mr. Boston, a 21-year-veteran of Americans United, said he rarely sees law enforcement officials write or post religious opinions.

"Any public official is expected to represent the entire community," he said, but the danger in a column such as Sheriff Gobble's is that someone might see the Christian message as excluding other religious views.

To safeguard against any legal violations, Mr. Boston said the sheriff must ensure that all religious groups and secular organizations have equal access.

Sheriff Gobble said the program does not discriminate.

"We're not limiting anybody who wants to come," he said.

The sheriff said he has not received any complaints and has gotten more positive feedback than for any other column he's written.

But Mr. Irons said people are somewhat intimidated when an authority figure expresses that type of message and often do not complain.

Mr. Boston and Mr. Irons refuted Sheriff Gobble's claim that the United States has a Christian heritage.

"That's sort of a historical revision of the record," Mr. Irons said.

In his blog response to Sheriff Gobble's column, Mr. Irons says historical documents such as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence contain nonspecific religious references such as "a creator," "the Lord" and "Divine Providence," but no references to Jesus Christ or specific Christian tenets.

Regardless of historical perspective, Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said posting the column is a problem in itself.

"It is unacceptable for a sheriff who is an authority figure, as he needs to be, to use a work-related Web site and blog to proselytize about his belief," Ms. Weinberg said.