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Ask Surly Amy: Separation of Church and Law Enforcement

Ask Surly Amy

I am an employee at a law enforcement agency in a VERY Christian community. Being the only non-Christian working there, I stay quiet about it to avoid conflict. I came to work one evening (I work the midnight shift) to find a small display of tiny Gideon New Testaments at the window to the dispatch room, where the public comes to talk to me. I brought them inside. The next day they were back outside. I moved them again. The next day, they reappeared. I asked a coworker about it, and was told my boss, the sheriff of the county, had placed them there for the public to take. I mentioned that this was a government office and that it probably isn’t legal. I was told that the sheriff wanted them there and didn’t expect any complaints, because it was his office and he’d do as he pleased.
I continue removing the Bibles every night, and they are always there again the next day. I’m already ignoring the Ten Commandments framed on the wall. Should I ignore this, too? Am I being silly?


Dear Joseph,

No, you are not being silly and I truly feel for you. This seems to not only be a violation of Separation of Church and State laws but also a form of discrimination. I am not sure if you are atheist or of a different religion than Christianity but I do feel that you have a right to a grievance regarding your workplace. Unfortunately, I am not a lawyer. I don’t know exactly what rights you have in this situation and I also don’t know how much you need your job. I say that because as you mentioned if you are working in extremely religious community you will most likely have a very hard time finding anyone who will take your side in this matter. Most people will have a, “What’s the harm?” Or, “The bible might help the criminal or the victims” attitude and you will have an almost impossible time winning that argument on your own. My advice would be to contact a lawyer that specializes in discrimination or Separation of Church and State issues and ask them what your rights actually are and how you can protect yourself. In the mean time, I would just continue to remove the books from your work area during your shift and if possible, consider transferring to a different location.

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Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. This may be one of those times to “pick your battle wisely.” That’s up to your judgment – You’re the one that’s there in person, not us.

    I get the impression from the sheriff’s (alleged) answer that he’s spoiling for a fight over this. Amy is right to caution you about the possible repercussions of challenging him. IMHO, your choices (IANAL) seem to be either ignore it, report it and/or transfer somewhere else. I take it as a given that somewhere along the line, your identity as the complaintant may be revealed. People in small offices often have big mouths.

    In addition, if this is a small community, you may well find that your reporting it will haunt you. For allegedly ‘forgiving’ people, these folks can be pretty vindictive (personal observation from living in a very “xtian” town). Ever heard of a Phyrric victory?”

    Definitely check with an attorney that specializes in this kind of law before making any moves on it. You could be in a situation that has no good outcome for you. If you’re living in an “at will” state, the only thing you may accomplish is going to the unemployment office.

    I’ve been there and lost that particular fight in a different industry. I wish you luck and the courage of your convictions if you choose to go ahead.

  2. Joseph,

    It really does blow that you are getting such a bum deal in the workplace. I really do wish you luck. Nobody should have to endure their coworkers beliefs in the workplace. They should be keeping that stuff at home.

  3. Here’s something I’ve done to the bibles at hotels…

    Stick post-it notes with comments on some of the more note-worthy passages. You know, like Judges 1:19 (“…could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron. “) or anything from Leviticus.

    Put a large post-it in the front directing readers to the appropriate passages.

    If they don’t already maybe FFRF should create stickies for this purpose?

  4. I’m with QA above and perhaps just let sleeping dogs lie, or ask an independent group like the ACLU to take up the issue or even making a call to your state attorney general’s office. Keeping some level of peace in the work place often involves not saying anything when you’re personally offended regardless of the big picture issues unless there’s some actual harm. Law enforcement does tend to be like the military where religion is often more prevalent than other work places.

  5. I suppose putting bio-hazard stickers on each one is out of the question?

    I agree with the majority. This is one of those times where choosing battles wisely dictates that this one to let go.

  6. @thad:

    I dunno about that, are you prepared for all those people who lapse into a coma when they’re unable to process the message?

  7. I’d take the two-fold strategy of a) looking for someplace else (if feasible) and b) looking for a lawyer, myself. Having been incautious in a similar situation (school district in Podunk, Texas), it’s usually not worth it unless it goes from the subtle intimidation they’ve currently got going on to something more overt.

    Especially if they’ve got “teamwork” type lines on your performance evaluations. That would be the ideal place to hurt someone who “doesn’t make an effort to fit in with the culture of the office.”

    When possible, subtly document things like this. They’re nice to have if they decide to fire you.

  8. If they are free to the public then why couldn’t their numbers shrink by 1 or 2 each day. Eventually, either no more are left or someone shells out more money for them. Subtle chaos is sometimes quite effective. Toss them when out of view, cameras etc.

  9. I feel you pain. May Odin afflict them with boils.

    If you want to freak their blessed little hearts out try some of these ideas. But most of all, be the unflinchingly best and perfect worker bee. Give no legitimate reason for reprimand or dismissal. And then …

    Buy your self a shiny new copy of Hitchens’s “God Is Not Great”. Read it on breaks.

    When someone sneezes, instead of the usual bless you say, “May The Ancient Serpent protect you”.

    If you take notes for people, put smiley faces and downward pointing pentagram doodles on them.

    If you can pull it off, go just a tiny bit goth. Be subtle.

    When a situation calls for OMG, say Oh My Beelzebub!

    With a sharpie, adorn three nails on each hand with a 6.

    When you handle money, hold a bill with the back up, close your eyes, rub the pyramid and in soto voce say, “Illuminati”

    Occasionally ask yourself, “What would Satan do?”.

    Wish people to have a happy New and Full Moon. And learn some pagan holidays to use as well.

    Buy a Zoom H2 or similar personal recorder. The H2 is a good one and sort of looks like a cell phone. Record everything. When you get called in for “the talk” it must be recorded. By now you will have found yourself a hungry lawyer. When they tell you to come to Jebus or fire you, sue their balls off.

  10. Shoot, I’m such a smartass that if that happened to me, I’d print out a stack of satanist pamphlets and set them right next to the stack of Bibles.

  11. “[…] it was his office and he’d do as he pleased.” I would like to inform his boss that, um, actually “his” office belongs to the government of the United States of America.
    That said, I’d echo Amy’s advice to get a lawyer. Who knows, it may be that you’re not the only one who thinks the bibles are inappropriate…all it takes is a large enough handful of vocal Christians to keep others quiet, it seems.

  12. Perhaps you’d like to leave some copies of The God Delusion or God is not Great next to the bibles (also free to the public)?

    Or, if you’re simply of a different religion (and not an atheist), that particular religion’s favored holy text.

    Probably not a good idea, though, if you’re keen on holding onto your job.

  13. I would stand outside giving everyone a bible and a list of recommended passages to read. I think the bible is an atheists best friend, fiction will always shine through.

  14. I’m in agreement with the commentators so far.

    Your very likely in the moral/legal right for not wanting the Bibles given away – this being a Government office.

    But unfortunately the toll to fight the battle could be long and hard. — and financially difficult. You could talk to the FFRF about it, and they would likely take your side — But they are often seen by the communities as outside troublemakers.

  15. The point here is to get a happier working environment; a fair few posters above have posted humorous but unhelpful suggestions (which I hope you’d never consider following). The point here is to do what’s right, *not* to “be in the right”. Being openly aggressive or damaging to someone else’s property – even if incorrectly or illegally placed in a public building – isn’t going to lead to the optimal outcome.

    My advice would be to consult a lawyer; separation of Church and State is pretty well grounded in US law, as far as I understand, and so you’re likely to find it easy to get helpful advice. You sound like you’re in a less-than-pleasant situation.

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