Atheists Prevail Against Texas County Sheriffs

Despite support from Gov. Greg Abbott, officials in Brewster County have agreed to ban the display of Christian crosses on sheriff's vehicles to settle a lawsuit from the national Freedom From Religion Foundation.

By Chuck Lindell

Despite support from Gov. Greg Abbott, officials in Brewster County have agreed to ban the display of Christian crosses on sheriff's vehicles to settle a lawsuit from the national Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Under the settlement, approved last week by county commissioners, Brewster County agreed to pay the foundation $21,970 in legal fees and $400 for court costs.

Two atheist residents of Brewster County who joined the foundation's lawsuit, Kevin Price and Jesse Castillo, also were awarded $1 each "for past constitutional violations," the consent decree said.

Greg Hudson, an Austin lawyer representing Brewster County and Sheriff Ronny Dodson, said the settlement reflected a county policy approved by the Commissioners Court in March that banned political, religious, commercial and personal symbols and messages from county vehicles. The ban was approved about three weeks after the foundation filed its lawsuit in Alpine's federal court.

The decals, foot-high depictions of a Latin cross with a thin blue line, were removed from the department's vehicles.

"It was just a business decision. There was no reason to fight anything," Hudson said. "I think the county's position is, let's save this fight for another day; we've taken care of this issue internally."

The settlement resolved "claimed constitutional violations" but specified that the county was making no admission of liability.

In its lawsuit, the foundation argued that the crosses represent a government endorsement of Christianity in violation of the First Amendment's prohibition on government actions that improperly favor one religion.

District Attorney Rod Ponton, whose West Texas district includes Brewster County, in December asked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to issue a formal opinion approving of the display, writing that he believed the "cross is a symbol of protection and comfort" for officers.

Abbott followed with a memo to Paxton that said the crosses do not favor one religion.

"The Brewster County deputies' crosses neither establish a religion nor threaten any person's ability to worship God, or decline to worship God, in his own way, " Abbott said. "The symbol of the cross appropriately conveys the solemn respect all Texans should have for the courage and sacrifice of our peace officers."

Paxton, a Christian who has made it a priority to protect religious practice, was blocked from issuing his opinion when the foundation sued Brewster County in early March. His office does not offer legal opinions involving pending litigation.

(c)2016 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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