OGDEN -- A letter on Facebook from Weber County's new sheriff, Terry Thompson, telling his staff that they are doing God's work and that God approves of capital punishment brought a quick response Wednesday from Brian Barnard, a lawyer in Salt Lake City who prosecutes civil rights cases.
Barnard sent a letter to Thompson and Weber County Attorney Dee Smith saying that Thompson's letter violates the U.S. Constitution, the Utah State Constitution and Weber County laws prohibiting work supervisors from discussing religion with their staff.
Smith could not be reached Wednesday afternoon to respond to the letter from Barnard, who faxed his letter to Thompson at 2 p.m. Wednesday.
Thompson, after reading the fax from Barnard, said he disagrees with Barnard's contentions that the letter violates the U.S. Constitution, specifically the First Amendment's prohibition against government promoting religion, sometimes referred to as the "establishment clause."
"I obviously disagree with his take that I'm violating the establishment clause. That's OK, he's certainly entitled to his opinion," Thompson said.
"I did pull the article off of our Facebook page. My intention wasn't to put it there. It was a letter to my employees. It was at the encouragement of employees to put it there."
Thompson's letter was sent to his staff Jan. 3 and posted on the Weber County Sheriff's Facebook page. The letter thanks his staff for their service, but then says he wants to share "some of my thoughts," and says that by doing public safety work they are doing God's work.
"Even if mistakes are made it does not change the fact that we are engaged in meaningful service to God and Country," he wrote.
"Always know that God, in whatever form you picture Him, recognizes our sacrifice and service."
He also says that he tried to join one of Utah's death penalty firing squads because he feels that "just as a soldier taking a life on the battlefield, or a police officer taking a life to protect himself or others, or a citizen taking a life to protect his own or another, it is okay because God is okay with it!"
Barnard said those parts of the sheriff's letter "cross the line" into advocating religion by a government official.
Thompson said he doesn't see anything in the letter he wrote that is not consistent with the Founding Fathers who wrote the U.S. Constitution, so he doesn't see how he could be violating it.
"I find it interesting that everything I've written and put in this letter seems to me to be pretty consistent with the writings of the forefathers of our country," he said. "Our country's motto is still 'In God We Trust.' It still says that on the currency. It's in the Pledge of Allegience.
"So in reading this I don't see where the Establishment Clause is violated. Certainly anyone who's read the Federalist Papers will see hundreds of referrences to God."
"Some of what's in his letter is innocuous," Barnard said, "but the portions I copied and put in my letter are over the line. He's suggesting that employees of the Weber County Sheriff are doing God's service. They're government employees, they are paid by the government, they are doing government service. They're clearly not doing service to God. It's incorrect and it's improper for him to imply that they're doing God's service."
Barnard said such pronouncements on official Sheriff's Department stationery make religious beliefs look like official department policy.
"What if the employee's an atheist? What if the employee has no religious beliefs? And the letter from the sheriff says God approves of capital punishment. I think you might find a couple of religious leaders in the state of Utah who would disagree with the sheriff."
The official stationery, he said, means that Thompson is announcing "in the sheriff's official capacity, as the Sheriff of Weber County, that God approves of capital punishment. That's out of line, and you're saying that to a subordinate, and the subordinate is saying, 'I have my own religious beliefs, and my religious beliefs say God doesn't approve of capital punishment.' "