Atheist group is $41,000 richer after settling federal lawsuit with Bradley County

Atheist group is $41,000 richer after settling federal lawsuit with Bradley County

August 12th, 2016 by Emmett Gienapp in Local Regional News

Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson speaks to the media in this file photo.

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

After weeks of litigation and thousands of dollars in legal fees, the Facebook squabble between Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson and a group of atheists has been settled.

On Thursday, the American Atheists organization received $41,000 after settling a federal lawsuit with the county and its sheriff's department stemming from Watson's decision to post a religious Easter message on the department's Facebook page.

The atheist group and a Bradley County resident filed the lawsuit in May, saying Watson violated their First Amendment rights by posting the message "He is risen" and deleting comments posted by detractors.

The Times Free Press previously reported that the complainant, identified simply as "Jane Doe," commented on the post under a pseudonym on April 5. When it was deleted, she complained to Lindsay Hathcock, assistant to Bradley County Mayor D. Gary Davis, according to the lawsuit.

Later that day, the sheriff's office blocked the Facebook account Doe maintains using her real name, even though she had never posted from that account on the sheriff's site before, the suit states.

She complained to the sheriff's office and that account was unblocked, but other critical comments made under her pseudonym continued to be blocked.

As part of the agreement, the new BCSO Facebook page will not be used to promote any religion, religious organization, religious event or belief, according to a news release from the American Atheists.

The release states that "while the county and sheriff admit to no wrongdoing under the agreement, the county will pay a total of $15,000 in damages to American Atheists and the local plaintiffs, Joshua Stevens and Jane Doe, and $26,000 in attorney's fees."

"This settlement is a clear win for the plaintiffs, whose First Amendment rights to free speech and to be free of government establishment of religion were infringed upon," said Amanda Knief, National Legal and Public Policy Director of American Atheists.

"We are pleased the sheriff has agreed to do the right thing by no longer using this official government social media account to promote religion."

But Watson, in his own new release, said the decision to settle for $41,000 was a business decision made by the Local Government Insurance Pool and was not his decision.

"IT WAS NOT COUNTY FUNDS and I maintained my denial of responsibility for any violation of the rights of the Plaintiffs," he wrote.

Watson's release stated that the case was result of the "inevitable clash between three clauses of the First Amendment. 'Our Government shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, or abridging the freedom of speech."

According to the release, the BCSO will maintain its Facebook page while Watson will maintain both his personal Facebook page and another page which will advise visitors that he is personally responsible for content posted there.

"The people who visit will be able to know my personal opinions, expressions of faith and other views in a totally unimpeded manner," he stated in the release.

Speaking about the original post, Watson said, "That post reflects my faith which is founded on the belief that Jesus Christ died for my sins and the sins of mankind."

The resident who helped file the suit as "Jane Doe" said she made the right decision in pursuing legal action, according to the release from the atheists' organization.

"I have always said that Constitutional rights are worth fighting for, and I am proud that when tested, I stood by that principle. It was not easy to stand up to the county sheriff and some people in my community who disagreed with me," she said.

"Despite some negative backlash, I do not regret taking action against government censorship. If you don't stand up for yourself, you risk losing your rights."

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731. Follow on Twitter @emmettgienapp.


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