Brewster County Sheriff vehicle, Alpine TX, March 3, 2016 (Lorne Matalon / Marfa Public Radio)
UPDATE: Tuesday, March 22: Brewster County Commissioners passed vote to revise the employee handbook to ban “political, religious, commercial or personal” messages or symbols from county-owned property. This means that the crosses on patrol cars will be disallowed.
UPDATE: Friday March 4: The Sheriff’s Office has released a statement, reiterating they will abide by whatever decision the Texas Attorney General makes about the case. The AG has said he would comment by June 20, 2016.
Last year in Alpine, the Sheriff of Brewster County allowed his deputies to place decals of the Latin Christian cross on their patrol cars. This week, a federal lawsuit was filed against the sheriff on the grounds that a government agency was advancing a religious point of view.
At a public forum last month, Sheriff Dodson describes the moment he saw the crosses. “We had a man here in town, a business man, and he brought fiver of those crosses to our office and laid them on our counter. And everybody looked at them, and thought, Well it’s a neat idea, because of the blue line. It’s the thin blue line. And I put one on my vehicle, which got torn off in two days.
His deputies stuck them on their vehicles, where they remain. Dodson said, “Because our guys go out and they are by themselves. And it is really scary to think about stepping out on a the car in the middle of the night. I want them to have that kind of protection.”
Sheriff Dodson appealed to Rod Ponton, his District Attorney, who defended the move, saying, “I believe that what the Sheriff in Alpine did is not violating any law and is not compelling anyone to believe anything.”
The District Attorney, in turn, appealed to Texas Attorney General, Ken Paxton, asking him to weigh in with an opinion. Meanwhile, Texas Governor Greg Abbot jumped in, defending the sheriff’s decision in a memo to Paxton’s office.
Sam Grover, an attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said, “We are interested in hearing what the Attorney General has to say. From an objective legal standpoint, this is a pretty settled area of law.”
In a separate case, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued Greg Abbott on February 25, over his removal last year of their Bill of Rights display at the state capitol. And this Wednesday, the organization sued Sheriff Dodson. They were joined by two local plaintiffs, Kevin Price and Jesse Castillo.
“What’s at issue here,” said Grover, “is the appearance of government endorsing Christianity over all other religions. And that’s something that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment does not allow.”
Sheriff Dodson says there is no preferential treatment. “We treat everybody fair. And if you ever sat in front of me at a job interview, that’s one of the things you would hear.”
But that’s beside the point, says Grover. “Anywhere in the country, we would hope that our law enforcement agents are treating people fairly. The Sheriff’s Department needs to do more than that. They also need to appear to be neutral.”
The lawsuit seeks a court order finding the decals illegal. It asks for an injunction against any future crosses. And for compensation.
“In terms of damages, we’re not looking to get rich,” said Grover. “We’re seeking nominal damages that are typically one dollar.”
Tom Michael of Marfa Public Radio asked, “It probably says ‘In God We Trust’ on that one dollar.”
“Yup. It certainly does,” Grove said. “That’s our national motto, which the courts have deemed to be a religiously neutral statement.”
In Tuesday’s election, the D.A., Ponton, lost to his primary race challenger, Jaime Escuder, who had made this a campaign issue. “It’s a government agency that supposed to serve everyone in the community. And is someone going to hesitate to call the sheriff, because they may be Jewish or Muslim? Or Atheist, God forbid.”
Sheriff Dodson was handily re-elected on Tuesday. And he defends the move, saying that residents of different religions can put different stickers on their cars.
“I didn’t wake up one morning and think I’m going to put crosses on here to make the Jewish people mad,” said Dodson, “but I’m not against Muslims. You know, I mean, I’m just like everybody else. I don’t want the bad ones here. I wouldn’t discriminate against them. If I had a Muslim officer who worked for me, he could put a Muslim (symbol) on his car.”
The sheriff hasn’t responded yet to the lawsuit. At the forum, an audience member asked him to adopt a bumper sticker that used the symbols of different religions, and a peace symbol, to spell out the word Co-Exist.
He answered, “Bring it over.”