Last week, Harlem Public Safety Chief Gary Jones created a little stir on the department’s Facebook page that sent ripples across the Internet and drew reactions from people in states across the nation.
Jones had created the Facebook page when he was named department director in May, as an official communications outlet for the community. The page provides information on everything from crime prevention and safety tips to notifications about self-defense and teen driving classes.
From the beginning, however, Jones has also used the page to espouse his personal religious beliefs. For the most part, Jones’ commentary on his Christian faith was met with approval from local residents who visited the page, and the chief was unapologetic about using the platform to promote his beliefs.
A Sept. 5 post read: “Some folks have asked me, are you concerned about speaking of God on your agency’s FB page? My answer is absolutely not. Some folks scream about separation of Church & State, but this country was built trusting in GOD. Many will not be happy until they see the name of God or Jesus removed from everything, including US currency.”
But earlier this month, after Jones posted commentary admonishing parents to do a better job disciplining their children and encouraging the use of corporal punishment, he caught the attention of people who not only didn’t agree with his parenting tips, but were alarmed at his evangelization efforts on the official department page.
That post and some others that followed attracted hundreds of comments and set off a running debate between those defending Jones’ right to express his beliefs and those who argued that using an official Facebook page amounted to state promotion of a specific religion, and a violation of the First Amendment.
The commentary became heated and at times profane. Ultimately, the controversy attracted the attention of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which sent a letter to the department to cease and desist.
At first, Jones was adamant that he would continue posting about his Christian faith, but by Monday he had changed his mind. The controversial posts were removed and Jones said he would keep his religious views on his personal Facebook page from now on.
It was the wise thing to do.
There is no doubt that Jones had the best of intentions when he began expressing Christian views on the department page.
We often forget that police officers are the people who get to see humanity at its worst. They encounter people every day who could greatly benefit from a healthy share of moral and spiritual guidance. It is certain that Jones had these people in mind when he implored visitors to the page to accept the grace of Jesus Christ.
Still, the official department Facebook page was the wrong format for the expression of his beliefs. He should have known that from the start. Government should not use its resources to promote a specific religion in an official capacity.
Many point to the Christian beliefs of our founding fathers as justification for promoting religion in schools or government meetings. We must remember, however, many of those people who established the country came here to escape religious persecution from governments in other lands. We want moral and ethical people to lead our government, but we don’t need a police officer, mayor, governor or president to tell us what to believe. We do not want to live in society where the state’s favored religion can be changed by the whims of the ballot box. Let us be thankful we live in a country where we are free to worship – or abstain from it – in any manner we choose.