A year after he was sued for using his office to promote Christianity, Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson says he's putting "In God We Trust" decals on county sheriff's office vehicles.
On Thursday, Watson unveiled a set of new Dodge Charger patrol cars adorned with trunk decals bearing the nation's 60-year-old motto. The motto has been used regularly since the Civil War, and Congress made it official in 1956. It has appeared on American paper currency since 1957, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
"These four words are not just patriotic, but simply, part of this country's heritage," Watson said in a news conference at his office, standing with a handful of private donors who funded the decal initiative. "For the past several months, I've been considering adding 'In God We Trust' to our agency's fleet vehicles, and I've received an overwhelming amount of support from the community when discussing this idea at various civic organization meetings."
Since he became sheriff in 2014, he has introduced elements of the country's symbolism within the office, including the use of the American flag on the officers' shoulder patches, Watson said.
Of the six donors present, five represented local churches.
"In the times that we have, it's important that we stand up for our beliefs," Alecia Kramer, minister of Church of God Jerusalem Acres, said after the conference. "We get so much negativity that we need to also give some positive out there, especially in the news media. This is something that's positive and we need to — as leaders, especially as Christian leaders — stand together and be unified."
Pastor David Kramer, her husband, said their congregation also was behind the decal message.
"We agree with [what] the pastor — er, the sheriff — is doing in Bradley County and we wanted to show our support," he said. "Also, we think when a police car arrives at your situation, whether it be an accident, or whether it be an emergency or a house fire or anything, we just think we want to see those words, 'In God We Trust,' because we do trust in God.
Watson said he had no concerns over the decals, even in light of the $41,000 settlement made to American Atheists Inc. and local plaintiffs last August.
At the time, Watson described the settlement as a business decision made by the Local Government Insurance Pool, denying he violated the First Amendment rights of a Jane Doe. The woman had complained the sheriff's office blocked her comments when she criticized Watson's use of the department's Facebook page to post religious messages.
He confirmed he did not consult with the county attorney before going forward with the decal plan.
"This is something that's been going on in the nation with other departments for many years," Watson said of the "In God We Trust" decals, citing their use by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office and other East Tennessee law enforcement agencies.
The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office adopted "In God We Trust" vehicle decals about a year ago, department spokesman Matt Lea said in an email.
"They were simply installed by motorpool staff when the vehicles rotated in for maintenance," Lea said. "Installation time is virtually non-existent, less than one minute. Since applying the decals, the sheriff has received many compliments from the public in support of this action."
The decals were donated to the sheriff's office, he said.
The Tennessee Sheriff's Association could not be reached for comment about how many of its member agencies have adopted "In God We Trust" vehicle decals.
Nick Fish, program director for American Atheists, described those stickers as divisive.
"This trend of placing 'In God We Trust' stickers on police cars has been advanced by religious organizations attempting to inject religious statements into places where they aren't needed," Fish said in an email. "Putting 'In God We Trust' on department vehicles only serves to divide the community along religious lines. We would strongly encourage the sheriff to remain neutral on these matters."
Fish recommended using "We the People" decals, which he said have been adopted by other law enforcement departments.
"That's what the sheriff should be doing instead of attempting to show off his religious bona fides: seeking to unite the community and remind folks that the department is there to serve the entire community, the law, and the Constitution," Fish said. "God or no god, the police should represent everyone equally."
American Atheists would be glad to donate "We the People" stickers to the Bradley County Sheriff's Office, he said.
"The purpose of this decal is NOT to cause division within the community," sheriff's office spokesman James Bradford said in an email response to Fish's claims. "The Bradley County Sheriff's Office provides public service to every resident in the Cleveland/Bradley County community no matter what their gender, nationality, or faith may be."
Bradford reiterated the sheriff's stance that the "In God We Trust" declaration is appropriate because it is the nation's motto.
Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @pleach_tfp.