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Controversial letter removed from Facebook page

By | Posted - Jan. 13, 2011 at 3:10 p.m.

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OGDEN -- A controversial posting by the Weber County sheriff referencing service to God has been removed from the department's Facebook page.

Weber County Sheriff Terry Thompson recently wrote a letter to his employees that he said was intended to boost morale and let them know they're doing a great job.

Government shouldn't be involved in religion, and here we have a government official ... making pronouncements that appear to be officials pronouncements of the sheriff's office.

–Brian Barnard, attorney

By serving the office and the community, Thompson said employees were also engaged in "meaningful service to God and country."

"Always know that God, in whatever form you picture Him, recognizes our sacrifice and service, understands our imperfections and blesses us," Thompson's letter states.

Thompson also talks in the letter about how the death penalty is morally sound, comparing it to a soldier in war, and noted that God was "okay with it!"

"I do believe that our employees are in service to God and country, and I think sometimes we overlook the obvious: our nation's motto is 'In God We Trust.' It's on our currency. When we say the pledge of allegiance we pledge allegiance to our country and our God," he said.

Many of the nation's forefathers referenced God in their writings, Thompson said. "I feel like I'm in pretty good company. So I'm OK with that."

I disagree with the opinions of Mr. Barnard and the Utah Civil Rights and Liberties Foundation. I don't believe it's a violation.

–Sheriff Terry Thompson

Based on encouragement from other employees, Thompson posted the letter on the Weber County Sheriff's Office Facebook page.

An employee, however, didn't feel the letter was appropriate and complained to Salt Lake-based civil rights attorney Brian Barnard. Barnard sent a letter to Thompson asking him to remove the letter, saying it violated state and federal laws separating church and state.

Barnard called it an improper endorsement of religion in the workplace. He said boosting morale at work was a fine idea, but violating the Utah and U.S. Constitutions wasn't.

"He suggests that as employees of the Weber County sheriff, they are doing God's service. That's wrong. They're employees of Weber County. They are doing the work of Weber County. They are not doing religious work while they are on the government payroll," Barnard said.

The letter, Barnard said, makes it look like the Weber County Sheriff's Office is giving an official proclamation about its religious beliefs, and that all employees are encouraged to have the same beliefs as the sheriff. It's not, he said, a petty issue.

"People's constitutional rights and the obligation of an elected official to comply with the Constitution is not petty," Barnard responded.

He noted that there were many religious leaders who oppose the death penalty.

Barnard said additional remedial action may be necessary. "Someone needs to sit down with the sheriff to make sure he understands the Utah and U.S. Constitutions."

Wednesday evening, the Facebook post was removed.

"I don't mind taking it off Facebook. If legal counsel would have called me and just said one of your employees had a problem with this, I would have removed it," Thompson said. "I'm OK with taking it down. The intention was to share that with employees. ... They got the message, they got that letter, and that's what was important."

Thompson said he loved all of his employees, regardless of their personal beliefs and hoped they understood it was OK to have different views.

But Thompson said it's his view that the country was built in a solid belief in a supreme being.

"When we're in service to our fellow man, we're in service to a higher power," he said.


Story compiled with contributions from Pat Reavy, Anne Forester, Andrew Adams and The Associated Press.

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