Lawyer for cop who resigned over anti-gay Facebook post: Religious people need not apply?

This is a commentary written by Stephanie Taub, senior counsel to First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm representing former Port Wentworth Police Officer Jacob Kersey.

When former Port Wentworth Police Officer Jacob Kersey posted his religious belief about marriage on his personal Facebook page in January, he never thought it would become a national news story.

He also never thought he’d lose his job because of it.

Previous reporting: Port Wentworth policeman who resigned over anti-gay Facebook post threatens legal action

Jacob Kersey resigned from the Port Wentworth Police Department after receiving backlash against a Facebook post expressing his conservative Christian beliefs.
Jacob Kersey resigned from the Port Wentworth Police Department after receiving backlash against a Facebook post expressing his conservative Christian beliefs.

After all, as an American citizen, he believed, he has a constitutionally protected right to freely express his religious beliefs when off-duty.  His Christian faith is a central part of his life, and he often shares his faith-based perspectives with friends online on his personal social media accounts.

It was never a problem until the day after his Facebook post, stating his biblical belief that God designed marriage between a man and a woman to reflect Christ and the church, drawing on a New Testament analogy, when two supervisors told him to take down the post.

Jacob felt like the department was forcing him to choose between his Christian faith and his job, so he decided that he could not remove the post. Later that day, another supervisor called Jacob and ordered him to come to the office the next morning and turn in all the items that belonged to the city.

The following day, Jacob arrived at the police station and met with several supervisors and Police Chief Matt Libby. According to Kersley, Chief Libby told him that his post about his Christian beliefs was the “same thing as saying the N-word and F— all those homosexuals.” Capt. Nathan Jentzen told him that his free speech was “limited due to his position as . . . a police officer.” They told Jacob “he could not post things like that” and that he would be placed on administrative leave while the city investigated him.

One week later, Jacob met with the department’s leadership again. He says they told him if he continued to share his interpretation or opinion on biblical scripture and it was deemed offensive, he could no longer work as a police officer for the department. The leadership cited “separation of church and state” as the reason.

The ddpartment’s leadership also stated they were developing a new policy to guide police officers on what they were and were not allowed to post on their social media accounts. To this point, the department did not have a policy that they could point to that Jacob had violated.

On Jan, 13, Jacob received a “Letter of Notification” from explaining that there was not sufficient evidence to terminate him, but that the notice was not to be construed as an exhaustive finding. The letter warned him, however, that he could be terminated for any post on any of his private social media accounts or any other statement or action that could be perceived as offensive, while noting that his posts and podcasts are “likely offensive” to certain communities. Maj. Lee Sherrod ended the letter saying that he hoped that Kersey would “take this situation as a learning lesson.”

After the meetings with leadership and the Jan. 13 letter, Jacob realized that he faced a choice between compromising his deeply held religious beliefs or continuing as a police officer with the department. Forced to choose between his private religious speech and the job he loved, Jacob had no choice but to resign.

No American should be forced out of their job because of their religious beliefs.

In a letter to city officials on behalf of Jacob from First Liberty Institute, we explain why it is a blatant violation of state and federal civil rights laws to discriminate against someone for expressing their religious beliefs.  Forcing Jacob to choose to either censor his private religious speech or remain employed as a police officer is simply unconstitutional.

Stephanie Taub
Stephanie Taub

The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment protects Jacob’s right to express his Christian beliefs in his personal life and discuss his faith while off duty. Just last year, in Kennedy v. Bremerton Sch. District, the Supreme Court of the United States said the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment protects “the ability of those who hold religious beliefs of all kinds to live out their faiths in daily life.”  The court concluded that government officials violate the Free Exercise Clause when they express or harbor animus toward religion and that animus accompanies an official action or policy that burdens religious exercise.

By forcing Jacob out of his job for expressing his beliefs, the city is sending a message that religious people are not welcome and need not apply.

The city must correct its policies to respect the free speech and free exercise rights of its employees.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Attorney for Port Wentworth Police Officer Jacob Kersey defends client