Group wants police to remove 'religion' from officers' patch

Group wants Lenoir City police to remove 'religion' from officers' patch

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The patch has the words "industry, religion, education" in red. The patch has the words "industry, religion, education" in red.

By JESSA LEWIS
6 News Reporter

LENOIR CITY (WATE) - A group promoting the separation of church and state is focused on the Lenoir City Police Department.

In the past, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has targeted the city's school system for allowing prayer at school sponsored events.

Now, the group says the patches worn on police officer's uniforms are unconstitutional, and the word "religion" must be removed.

"We have a complaint from someone who encountered it and knew it was unconstitutional and was offended and contacted us for help," said Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

The foundation says the patch sends the wrong message. "If you have a police patch that has religion on it, it sends a message of theocracy. It sends a message that this is a theocratic police force and if you're aren't of their religion, then you'd better watch out," Gaylor said.

The Lenoir City Council addressed the issue at its meeting Monday evening. The city attorney drafted a letter to the foundation stating:

"While I respect the right for you to express your concerns, under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, I do not believe the law enforcement patch in question violates the United States Constitution. The patch in questions merely states the word 'religion,' as such, it does not endorse nor discriminated against any religious faith."

The council meeting was packed and members of the community erupted in applause when Mayor Tony Aikens said the city would fight back against the foundation's position.

"We are proud to have you as our elected official and we are proud that you are taking this position to defend our community," said resident Dick Demerchant.

Long time Lenoir City residents say they hadn't even noticed the now controversial patch. "Never. In fact, I've never gotten that close to look at a patch. In fact, we have a policeman that lives a couple of doors down from him and when I see him, I don't even look at the patch," said Glen Hill.

"They've got their rights and beliefs, but I believe in prayer," Junior Collins said.

One of the arguments for keeping the patches is to cost of replacing them.

"I was a Girl Scout. It didn't cost very much to get a patch. You just sew it on. You cannot send a message of exclusion by putting religion on your patches and insignia," Gaylor said.

The foundation says changing the patches would be much more cost effective than defending what they say is a losing lawsuit.

"Either way, it doesn't really matter whether they're wearing a patch or not. I think they're just there to do their duty, protect and serve," said Hill.

Mayor Tony Aikens said the city is putting the "ball back in the Freedom From Religion Foundation's court" with the letter. He said the patches have been a part of the uniforms for at least 40 years.

"The word religion is just a statement. It doesn't endorse anything. If someone calls 911 they aren't going to ask you what religion you are. They're going to answer the call no matter what. That's our position. We help everyone," Mayor Aikens said.

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