WALLA WALLA — Columbia County Undersheriff Robbie Patterson did not break departmental policy or violate the Constitution by speaking publicly about his religious and political beliefs while in uniform, according to Sheriff Joe Helm and county Prosecuting Attorney C. Dale Slack.
Their response comes less than a week after the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation arguing Patterson’s sermons had been given in his official capacity as undersheriff and had violated the Constitution’s establishment clause, which bars the government from favoring one religion over another.
“We write to insist that Undersheriff Patterson immediately cease using his official position as undersheriff to proselytize and promote his personal religious beliefs,” wrote FFRF staff attorney Christopher Line in the Aug. 11 letter.
The FFRF, a nonprofit based in Madison, Wisconsin, pushes against “state/church entanglements” through advocacy and litigation, according to the group’s website, and wrote to the Sheriff’s Office in response to a complaint by an unnamed resident.
In the Aug. 11 letter, Line wrote that Patterson had repeatedly used his official position to proselytize, violating the Constitution’s prohibition against a government-established religion.
“There are a startling number of instances where Undersheriff Patterson has published videos of himself, to both YouTube and Facebook, wearing an official sheriff’s uniform while espousing claims that explicitly promote and favor Christianity,” wrote Line.
Patterson, who was sworn in as undersheriff of Columbia County in 2019 and also serves as chaplain to the Sheriff’s Office, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
While Patterson is out of uniform in most of the sermons he uploads to social media, he appears in uniform in several, including videos uploaded to his “Christ Is King Ministries” YouTube page titled “Graduation Challenge,” “A Call To Prayer For Our Nation” and “Who’s King In America?”
Line referenced two such videos in his letter to the Sheriff’s Office. During one titled “The Old Landmarks” that was uploaded to Patterson’s YouTube page on June 25, Patterson spoke in uniform at a rally about his faith and its intersection with his political views.
“Here in the word of God in Proverbs chapter 22 and verse 28, He says: ‘Remove not the ancient landmarks which were established by your fathers,'” Patterson said. “And whenever we look out at the way that people are using and abusing and acting on things, we cannot give them any ground.”
Though Patterson makes several references to different kinds of flags in the video, it isn’t clear from the video what landmark or other symbol he was asked to speak about, and Patterson acknowledged early in the recording that he didn’t know what was going on with what he referred to as “the flag thing.”
But Patterson spoke about his faith, his belief that the country was founded on Christian principles, and his thoughts about the “…violent secularization of this country that has weeded every ounce of God and godliness out of the school system, out of our history…”
Line also pointed to a video from May, when Patterson gave a sermon while in uniform during Dayton’s National Day of Prayer celebrations and said that Jesus Christ is the “only answer that this little town has, the answer that this nation has,” to the problems they face.
“While Undersheriff Patterson is free to express and promote his own religious beliefs in his personal capacity, it is unconstitutional to do so in his official capacity as undersheriff,” Line wrote.
Echoes of Bremerton, Spokane
In an interview Tuesday, Aug. 16, Slack, the Columbia County prosecuting attorney, said he does not believe Patterson’s actions violated the Constitution, particularly given recent court decisions at the state and federal level.
Slack pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District earlier this summer.
In late June, the court voted 6-3 in favor of Joseph Kennedy, a former assistant football coach who had been put on administrative leave by the district in 2015 after he refused to stop praying with students on the field after games. The district feared it risked “constitutional liability” under the establishment clause due to Kennedy’s actions, according to court documents.
The Supreme Court ruled that Kennedy’s religious expression was protected by the First Amendment, and that the government was not required to “suppress such religious expression” to protect students from feeling pressured to participate, as the district had argued.
“I think that changed, no pun intended, the field for cases of public employee’s religious expression,” Slack said.
In a brief interview, Line said that while the Kennedy decision did change precedent, it was unclear how it would be applied to other cases. Line argued that the majority opinion was based on a misrepresentation of what Kennedy actually did, but even within that context, the ruling was specific to the facts of the case and can’t necessarily be applied more broadly.
Slack also pointed to state-level precedent protecting the religious expression of public employees, with the 2018 Washington state Supreme Court decision in Sprague vs. Spokane Valley Fire Department.
In 2012, the department fired fire captain Jon Sprague for posting religious messages on a digital employee bulletin board that was often used for non-work related messages. Six years later, the state Supreme Court ruled the department had violated Sprague’s First Amendment rights when it fired him for the religious nature of his messages.
“To generalize, it marks a pretty big shift from what, for a number of decades, has been an emphasis of the establishment clause to more of an emphasis on the protection clause,” Slack said.
Equal, fair treatment
Beyond the constitutionality of Patterson’s in-uniform sermons, Line argued they created the perception that the Sheriff’s Office would not treat residents of different faiths equally.
“As undersheriff, Mr. Patterson serves a diverse population that consists of religious and nonreligious citizens,” Line wrote. “By giving official sermons espousing Christianity, Undersheriff Patterson creates the appearance that he — and your entire office — are biased toward citizens who share his religious beliefs and hostile toward those who do not.”
Though Line wrote in his letter to the Sheriff’s Office that Patterson had reportedly been on duty during the June 25 sermon, Helm denied this.
“One thing to make clear, he is doing them on his private time.”
As long as his employees aren’t engaged in “illegal or immoral behavior,” Helm said he does not monitor their off-duty activities.
While Patterson does serve as chaplain of the Sheriff’s Office and interfaces with a number of faith-based communities in this role, he does this to further the office’s goal “to fight crime and foster relationships in the community,” Helm said.
Slack and Helm also argued that Patterson was not speaking for the department during his sermons just because he was in uniform, comparing this to a member of the military wearing their uniform during a religious function.
“The facts of what happened here, as far as I understand them, is Undersheriff Patterson is doing things on his own time — as a person who also happens to be an undersheriff at the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office — as opposed to representing the Sheriff’s Office,” Slack said.
“This isn’t some incidental thing where (Patterson) just wants to shoot a video real quick and forgot to take his uniform off after work or something like that, where it’s just a coincidence,” Line said. “He very clearly wants people to believe that this is the Sheriff’s Office speaking and not just him as a person”
Helm insisted that Patterson and the rest of the Sheriff’s Office treats the county’s residents fairly regardless of their faith.
“We treat everybody fairly regardless of their religious beliefs or non-religious beliefs,” he said. “I’ve never had anyone raise this concern to me since I’ve been sheriff.”