Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero is facing criticism that she acted too hastily in deciding to move a plaque with a Bible verse at the Knoxville Police Department.
Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett is among those saying that Rogero should have pushed back when the Freedom From Religion Foundation began to complain and threaten legal action earlier this year.
Rogero announced her decision earlier this week, confirming it was the result of a complaint from the East Tennessee chapter of the national group, which is headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin, and pushes for the separation of church and state. The group said the placement of the plaque was unconstitutional “religious promotion.”
The plaque, which was put up in the early 1970s, had been displayed above a staff entrance not typically frequented by the public. Rogero said she was not aware of any other complaints in recent years.
Rogero said the plaque would be moved to a new “Hall of Inspiration” on the other side of the door featuring quotes from various traditions. The plaque quotes Romans 8:31 and says, “If God be for us, then who can be against us?”
The plaque was moved Friday morning. Aleta Ledendecker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation said moving the plaque was “a step in the right direction.”
Rogero issued a statement Thursday to “clear up some misunderstandings and some overreactions.” She emphasized the plaque was not being removed but rather “moved from one side of a doorway over a staff entrance to the other side of the same doorway.”
“It will hang over the exit door and will be the last thing our officers see as they head out on patrol,” Rogero said. “This is a great solution suggested by KPD officers to resolve the constitutional issues that had been raised about the display of the verse.”
But some people say there was no reason for Rogero to acquiesce in any way to the demands of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and that as a result the city has become more vulnerable to attacks on other forms of Christian religious expression.
The Knoxville News Sentinel quoted Burchett as saying, “Mayor Rogero is my friend, but I would fight this one. I wouldn’t yield to extortionists.”
The city’s law director said the original placement of the plaque crossed a line regarding government promotion of religion, but former Knoxville police chief Phil Keith believes Rogero should have sought a second opinion from the state attorney general.
“The mayor folded like a cheap tent on this issue,” Keith told The Tennessee Star. “The question now is what is next to be challenged,” he added, raising the possibility of complaints about Bibles in police department offices, prayers at roll call, and the work of chaplains.
Clayton Wood, a pastor at Lonsdale Community Church, wrote a letter to city officials explaining his concern about misunderstandings about the separation of church and state. The phrase does not appear in the Constitution, but rather in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson. Wood said:
It was used in a letter to the Danbury Baptists, a group in Connecticut who felt threatened that the federal government might choose to side with a particular Christian sect to make it the “official” Christian religion of the Republic. Jefferson assured them that the federal government would remain nonsectarian and not meddle in church affairs. Somehow that little phrase has become so deeply misunderstood that lawsuits are filed and won all across our country every single year from people who believe in a type of neutrality that is hostile to Christianity. The Supreme Court has rejected that.
Wood told The Tennessee Star that “Christians should insist that a misunderstanding of the Establishment Clause does not result in ongoing hostility to our religion by state actors.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation also has objected to Knoxville’s plans to work with the Emerald Youth Foundation, a Christianity ministry, on a new youth creation complex in Lonsdale. However, Rogero and other city leaders determined the partnership does not raise any constitutional issues.