FIRST ON THE DAILY SIGNAL— A former police officer’s lawyers are calling on a Georgia police department to make changes after it placed a rookie officer on administrative leave for using social media to express his views on marriage.
“The City of Port Wentworth and the Port Wentworth Police Department should issue a public statement committing to respect the First Amendment rights of its police officers and announce an official change of policy,” attorneys with First Liberty Institute and former Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., wrote Monday in a letter to Mayor Gary Norton and Maj. Bradwick Lee Sherrod, the city’s assistant police chief.
First Liberty Institute, a nationwide legal organization protecting religious liberty, represents Jacob Kersey, who resigned as an officer with the Port Wentworth Police Department in January after facing backlash for sharing his personal, biblical view of marriage in a Facebook post.
“God designed marriage. Marriage refers to Christ and the church,” Kersey, 19, wrote on Facebook while off duty at the beginning of the year. “That’s why there is no such thing as homosexual marriage.”
The Daily Signal first reported on Kersey’s case.
The Port Wentworth Police Department, serving the city just outside Savannah, placed Kersey on paid leave when the young officer refused to remove the Facebook post.
A week later, Kersey met with the leadership of the police department. He told The Daily Signal that he was informed that he no longer was on administrative leave and would not be fired, but that he couldn’t share opinions on social media that could be considered offensive.
Kersey said he was told he could post Scripture verses, but could not work as one of the police department’s officers if he continued to share his “interpretation or opinion on Scripture if it was deemed offensive.”
He said he also was told that the police force was developing a new policy to guide officers on what they were and were not allowed to post on social media.
On Jan. 17, Kersey formally resigned from the Port Wentworth Police Department, later telling The Daily Signal that he made the decision “because I just didn’t think it wise to go back and play their game.” And, he added, “The way things went down, I didn’t feel as if my command really had my back.”
Now, Kersey and his attorneys are asking the mayor of Port Wentworth and the police department to change their policy and protect the First Amendment rights of employees.
Their letter to Norton and Sherrod reads:
Requiring Mr. Kersey to censor his private, off-duty religious speech to remain employed as a police officer is an unconstitutional violation of Mr. Kersey’s rights under the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment. The City of Port Wentworth and the Port Wentworth Police Department should issue a public statement committing to respect the First Amendment rights of its police officers and announce an official change of policy.
The Port Wentworth Police Department’s treatment of Kersey “was blatantly unconstitutional” because it violated both those clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution, Stephanie Taub, senior counsel with First Liberty Institute, told The Daily Signal.
Kersey told The Daily Signal he is sharing his story and calling for change at the Police Department because “this is about the next officer that this is going to happen to.”
“There’s no doubt in my mind that if this … goes unchallenged and if it’s swept under the rug, this will continue to happen to other officers, not only at Port Wentworth but also other cities,” the former police officer said.
“If you can’t talk about your religion, if you can’t speak your religion, then you don’t have religious freedom,” Kersey said.
First Liberty Institute has offered to work with Port Wentworth “to inform the [police] department of its obligations under the Constitution” to create a speech policy that is “fully consistent with First Amendment protections,” the lawyers’ letter to the mayor and assistant police chief says.
“What we’re doing here is we’re calling them to the table,” Taub said, “calling them to do the right thing, to take accountability for their actions, and to officially change their policy so that no officer is subjected to this form of anti-religious discrimination in the future.”
Asked whether First Liberty Institute would consider filing a lawsuit against Port Wentworth if the city and its police force don’t respond favorably, Taub said: “We’re considering all of our options, and we’re hopeful that we can resolve this with the city without having to go there.”
Less than a week after The Daily Signal reported that Kersey had resigned over the backlash that greeted his Facebook post on marriage, Port Wentworth Police Chief Matt Libby announced his retirement in a short letter.
Following his retirement announcement, Libby told WSAV-TV (News 3) that it “was a forced retirement, it is not what I planned.”
WSAV, an NBC affiliate, reported that it obtained a document from the city administrator outlining Libby’s misconduct and violations of policy.
The document accuses Libby of spending more than $66,000 of the city’s money on unauthorized purchases, including over $19,000 worth of software.
When asked why he believes Libby retired when he did, Kersey told The Daily Signal that “the timing was very interesting,” given the fact that his story gained national attention in the days leading up to the police chief’s announcement.
“I’m not denying … what the city says that they found,” Kersey said.
But he added that if city officials were to “say that they forced [Libby] to retire because they don’t agree with his handling of my situation, well, they’re choosing a side.”
“And I certainly don’t think the city wants to do that, and that’s why they’ve been silent,” Kersey said.
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