Easter post by sheriff’s department sparks controversy

By: 
Jordan Gerard

What started out as well wishes for a Christian holiday in the spring, ended with criticism and a discussion on the Houston County Sheriff’s Office’s Facebook page on April 21 as well as a warning from a national organization.

The post featured a sunrise photo of a cross with the words “He is Risen – Matthew 28:6” and the status on top of the photo “Happy Blessed Easter.”

A mix of well wishers returned the feelings, while others criticized the department for not recognizing the separation of church and state. 

Most of the negative comments posted originated from people who lived out of the Midwest or had never lived in Houston County.

Sheriff Mark Inglett said the post could have been shared to a Facebook group, whose members then started commenting on it.

“Does separation of church and state no longer exist in Minnesota? I’d like to introduce you to the Constitution of the United States. This belongs on your private fb [Facebook] page and not a public one,” said one commenter.

“This belongs on a personal page, not an official public government page! The United States of America has a secular government, not an official religion; go back and re-read the 1st amendment!” read another.

The positive ones came from those who do live in Houston County or previously lived here. 

“And Many Thanks for all your department does daily to protect my loved ones!” one said.

“Happy Easter to you as well Houston County Sheriff Dept. May God keep you all safe for all eternity. Thank you for your service and dedication,” said another comment.

The American Humanist Association (AHA) was notified about the post, and then that group sent a warning to the department, whose legal director, David Niose, reminds the department that “such blatantly religious statements on a government-run page, unambiguously promoting Christian beliefs, are seen as problematic by many in your community.”

In addition, Niose noted, the post brings concerns about a potential violation of the wall of separation between church and state.

Executive Director Roy Speckhardt explained further, “Taxpayers from diverse religious and nonreligious backgrounds fund the very office that is now promoting Christianity ... This is not just a constitutional violation, it’s a slap in the face to the many member s of the community who do not practice Christianity, but deserve equal consideration by their public officials.”

The notice also says if the department and Sheriff Inglett do not correct the behavior in the future could “only be seen as a brazen disregard for church-state separation, thus inviting litigation.”

Inglett said he did not mean to offend anyone with the post, but just to simply wish the residents of Houston County a “Happy Easter.” 

“If I did offend anyone in Houston County, I apologize,” he said. 

As of Friday, April 26, the post had 299 reactions (like, love, haha, wow or sad), 35 comments and nine shares from other people (to post on their own Facebook page).

Perhaps what is more interesting is the fact that the department has posted “Merry Christmas” wishes combined with Christmas trees or nativity scenes in the past without criticism or warning. Comments on those posts included returned well wishes. 

AHA Communications Associate Sarah Henry said the group has received three notices of similar Easter posts on government pages, including another sheriff’s office in Greene County, Missouri and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey.

As for Houston County, County Attorney Samuel Jandt said he had not received direction from the county board to explore the issue or investigate it.

The Human Resources department said the county recognizes Christmas as an official holiday and Good Friday is counted as a “spring holiday.” 

They believed Easter to be listed in the union contract as an official holiday, but since it always falls on a Sunday, it was not usually concerning.

Even if the majority of Houston County most likely practices one denomination of a Christian-based religion or another, government offices generally do not claim bias toward one religion or another.

In addition, Houston County’s neighbor to the southwest, Winneshiek County, also received a notice from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

They posted a similar picture to the one pictured on the front page. The commenters also came for them too, decorahnews.com reports.

Winneshiek County Sheriff Dan Marx told decorahnews.com, “We simply offered a holiday greeting on a weekend that is recognized by Winneshiek County and, unfortunately, some people appeared to be offended by it.”

They also write that “Winneshiek County government has a list of official holidays it observes and those include Good Friday, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day – all three of which are religious observances.”