Monday, March 21, 2016

Bible quotes on city government Facebook pages may be OK, attorney general says

Posted By on Mon, Mar 21, 2016 at 4:35 PM

click to enlarge JEFF PRESLEY: Jonesboro 911 chief spurs attorney general review of Bible quotations on government Facebook pages.
  • JEFF PRESLEY: Jonesboro 911 chief spurs attorney general review of Bible quotations on government Facebook pages.

For a look at how your public agencies and official labor, I point you to the immensely detailed official attorney general's opinion on the question of whether it is permissible for a city government Facebook page to post Bible quotations.

The question was put by Sen. John Cooper of Jonesboro.

The bottom line: Maybe, maybe not, depending on which of various and sometimes shifting analyses the U.S. Supreme Court uses on tests of whether public agencies have breached the First Amendment prohibition of government establishment of religion. The opinion leans toward the view that the current court has become more permissive about allowing religious expression and that the quotations in question might withstand scrutiny.

It is not the attorney general's place, of course, but you wish she'd also noted that there's nothing to prevent government pages from sticking to government business and avoiding quotation — whether from the Bible, the Koran or The Onion or My Little Pony. Those who repeatedly quote the Bible ARE often trying to force their religion on others, whether through legally permissible means or not.

 This opinion arises from a citizens' complaint about the Facebook page of the 911  chief in Jonesboro, Jeff Presley. The specific complaint is now more or less moot. After the complaint, the mayor ordered the religious content taken off. The page was reformatted and subsequently became a personal page for Presley, who also happens to be a candidate for county judge. The person who complained was blocked from viewing that page. He also contends he was blocked through a city-operated page, however.  All that led to the opinion delivered today. The Jonesboro Sun reported in detail on the genesis. 

Still. Even if Leslie Rutledge says the city of Jonesboro, and others, can find legal ways to justify daily posting of Bible quotes, it doesn't mean they should.

The specific posts and Rutledge's analysis follows:

* The first post contains a logo with “911 Dispatch Jonesboro” at the top. The Post states, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength. Have a great Day!” While this statement is unattributed, it is clearly a quotation of Philippians 4:13. Immediately under the statement is a picture of a lone tree in the early morning with sun beams streaming through it.

In my opinion, this Post would withstand scrutiny, regardless of which test the court employed. This Post would clearly withstand the coercion test (whether direct or indirect). Under the direct coercion standard, nothing in your factual background indicated that the city was forcing people to engage in any religious practices lest they be penalized. No one was being forced by law to view the Facebook page or in any way even acknowledge its existence. Likewise, even under the indirect coercion standard (if that applies outside the school context) posting verses from the Bible on a Facebook page does not generate societal pressure to even visit the Facebook page, let alone engage in any religious practices.

The analysis under the Lemon and endorsement tests is very similar. A reasonable observer would (in my opinion) likely see the Post as simply an inspirational statement. This amounts to a secular purpose (satisfying Lemon’s first prong), and it has a primary effect (Lemon’s second prong) that neither advances nor inhibits religion. Accordingly, under either test, the specific Post would likely pass muster.

Post 2
The second post contains the “911 Dispatch Jonesboro” logo, two statements, and two pictures. The statements are, “End of watch___ Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Though the latter statement is unattributed, it is clearly a quotation from Psalm 23:4. Underneath these statements are two pictures. The first is the U.S. Marine Corps seal overlaid with a black ribbon with the words, “In Remembrance.” The second picture is of U.S. Marines in full dress uniform standing at attention with their heads lowered. The picture, which appears to be at a funeral, contains the following statement: “Semper Fidelis, Marines #HonortheFallen.”

In my opinion, this Post would withstand scrutiny, regardless of which test the court employed. The analysis under the coercion standard is identical to that offered, above, when I addressed Post 1. Further, under both Lemon and the endorsement tests, the Post clearly has the secular purpose and effect of honoring veterans—specifically, Marines. So far from endorsing (or advancing, under Lemon) religion, the Post uses a biblical quotation to add solemnity to attempt to honor our veterans.

Post 3
The third post contains the same 911 Dispatch logo, followed by an unattributed quotation of Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” Directly under the statement is a picture with a coffee mug and the messages, “Good Morning,” and “Wishing you a very peaceful Sunday.”

A court would be highly likely to declare that this Post withstands the coercion test and somewhat likely to declare that it withstands the endorsement test. As for the Lemon test, given the fact-intensive nature of that test, I cannot provide a definitive response without more facts.

The coercion analysis is identical to that offered in response to Post 1. Under Lemon, the critical issue would be whether Post 3 has a primary secular purpose. It seems conceivable and reasonable to me that the Post has a secular purpose—namely, to promote emergency responders (and respect for emergency responders) as peacemakers. If this was indeed the primary purpose of the post, it would likely be found constitutional. But, based on the limited facts before me, I cannot definitively opine on whether that is the primary secular purpose behind the Post. Therefore, I cannot definitively say whether Post 3 would be upheld under Lemon.

Under the endorsement test, a court would inquire into how a reasonable, objective observer would view the Post. In my opinion, such an observer would think that the Post is affirming and promoting the peace-making activities of emergency-service providers. The Post is simply using a religious quotation to add weight and solemnity to the affirmation. The Post is not endorsing a religion, or a religious establishment, or even the idea of religion in general. Accordingly, under the endorsement test, a court would likely hold that the Post passes scrutiny.

Post 4
The fourth post also contains the 911 Dispatch logo, followed by an attributed New Testament quotation in which Jesus is speaking: “Matthew 11:28–30 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Like the other posts, this quote is also followed with a picture. This one depicts a coffee mug, a present, flowers, and some kind of box. The picture contains two statements: “Good Morning” and “Have a Beautiful and Blessed Day.”

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