Dear Editor:

There has been some controversy over the Winneshiek County Sheriff’s office Easter Facebook post, which had an overtly Christian message of “He is risen.”  

First of all, personally I share the sentiment expressed in that message. A look at my personal Facebook page would show that during Holy Week and Easter, I posted many things related to my faith. I appreciate the ability to express those sentiments in a relatively public forum on my personal Facebook page and I make no secret of that affiliation.

Some of the negative reaction to this post has been inflammatory, and that is unfortunate. It is unfortunate because this ought to be a rational discussion of what is appropriate and responsible for an official Facebook page of a Sheriff’s office to post.  

The argument defending the post has been made that this is an expression of free speech. The problem with this argument, however, is that all of our rights come with responsibilities. A law enforcement agency should understand full well that there are limitations to our rights when it comes to the safety and security of our people, and anyone who has held a job for any length of time knows that though we have freedom of speech, there are always expectations of what is appropriate and responsible to say in any given professional situation. Even as private citizens, there are particular expectations and responsibilities we have to one another that allow us to maintain a civil society.

The problem with the post by the Winneshiek County Sheriff’s office is not that it was in and of itself offensive. The problem isn’t that it was overtly Christian. And, I am certain that it was posted with the best of intentions. The problem is that the post didn’t consider the responsibility that any law enforcement agency has to all of its citizens -- that it must at all times enforce the law with integrity and justice for everyone.  

The issue of an overtly Christian message on a Sheriff’s website has to do with the perception that people who are not Christian might have of the agency. Not everyone in Winneshiek County is Christian. There are people in this county who have experienced abuse by church leaders or other Christians and are wary of any religious messaging as a result.  

But, the Sheriff’s Department is to be the agency that guarantees safety for those citizens as well as Christians. For example, at Luther College, there are a number of Muslim students. They often feel insecure because they are such a small minority, many of them are living far from home, and many have experienced anti-Muslim sentiment to some degree while they have lived in the U.S. and in our community. These are young adults who need to feel that their community is safe and that they can trust our law enforcement agents. They need a community where they will not be marginalized or feel that they cannot trust that they will be treated fairly or justly.

Now, I don’t believe for a second that our Sheriff’s office would treat anyone unjustly or unfairly because of who they are. I believe that our law enforcement officers have integrity and are interested in the safety of all our citizens. The thing is, I don’t need that assurance. But, our non-Christian citizens might. They need to know that our Sheriff’s office is not going to discriminate based on religion. 

The problem is not that this post is offensive. The problem is that it sends an irresponsible message, intended or not, to those who might be wary of how law enforcement officers in this county might treat them. The responsibility of anyone who monitors a professional Facebook page is to make sure that whatever is posted on Facebook in an official capacity (and this is an issue -- the sheriff took responsibility for the post, but the page is really the public face of the department and thus must comply with professional standards) really conveys the value of the organization as a whole, and the primary value that needs to be conveyed on a law enforcement agency’s page is that the department is interested in public safety and justice for all of the citizens of the county, no matter their religion, race, sexual orientation, or gender.  

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t freedom to post messages on holidays, but it does mean that due consideration for the message being conveyed be taken before something is made public. I would even suggest that a simple message of “Happy Easter” would not have received the same degree of criticism as the post in question.

I often get a sense that people who are in the majority in any given place tend to think that everyone must simply put up with any and all messages conveyed that reflect the dominant culture or religion of a place. But the dominant culture is going to be expressed, no matter what, and that is okay. Churches and congregations are an integral part of our community and county, and they are a public presence. 

Think of how often events are promoted for churches in our local paper, for example, and consider how our local congregations are actively engaged in social programs in our community. These are all good things. However, it is the responsibility of law enforcement agencies to serve all people, regardless of their religious beliefs or practices. Because of that, there should never be a message that could be construed by anyone that agencies meant to enforce the law with equity and justice might privilege those who have a particular religious affiliation -- and this is the real reason for the separation of church and state -- not to silence religious belief or practice, but to ensure that there is equal treatment under the law for all people.  

And this is the reason why our Sheriff can freely post any Christian sentiment he wants on his personal Facebook page, but he might consider a less overtly Christian message for the post on the official page of the law enforcement agency which he oversees in a professional capacity. 

Finally, I want to make quite clear that this letter is simply a critique of one isolated action, and not a criticism meant to be a personal attack or to call into question a department and a sheriff that performs its work admirably and with integrity.

Dr. Jonathon Struve

Instructor in Voice and Paideia

Luther College