Controversial decals have been removed from all Houston County Sheriff’s Office vehicles.
Houston County Administrator Bill Dempsey said a recommendation was made Tuesday to Houston County Sheriff Donald Valenza to remove the decals.
The square-shaped decal read “Blessed are the Peacemakers...,” which is encircled around the Houston County sheriff’s badge with Matthew 5:9 listed underneath the badge.
Valenza placed the decals on all the department’s vehicles a few months ago.
Dempsey said Valenza was not asked or even instructed to remove the decals, but a recommendation was made to him.
Dempsey said the recommendation was made after he and the sheriff received two letters from an organization called the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, threatening legal action if the decals were not removed from the sheriff’s vehicles.
Dempsey said county officials spoke with a local attorney along with the county’s insurance carrier and learned if the county did not remove the decals they could face expensive legal fees.
“Of course neither the commission nor anyone here supports that request, however we contacted our liability insurance carrier and their attorneys said, if we take this to court, they said we’re going to lose,” Dempsey said. “The county would be looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal expenses.”
Dempsey said if the county did not remove the decals it would have to pay for any legal expenses on its own.
District 4 Commissioner Brandon Shoupe said there are prominent local attorneys who would represent the county free of charge if the issue went to court, but in all likelihood the county would still lose the case and stand to lose a lot of money in the process.
“The big issue is if we were to lose, and there’s a north of 80 percent chance that would happen, we’d have to take Houston County taxpayer money and give it to the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and I don’t think there’s anybody in this county who wants that to happen,” Shoupe said.
There is precedent for Americans United winning large monetary judgments from governmental entities.
The 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District ruling, which included Americans United as a representative of the plaintiffs, resulted in the school board paying out more than $1 million in legal fees and damages to the plaintiffs.
Houston County commissioners were unanimous in personally supporting the message on the decals.
“I think they should stay,” said District 3 Commissioner Jackie Battles. “I support them 100 percent. We need to make a stand here. They’ve called and threatened us and said they (were) going to sue us, but I don’t believe they’d ever take us to court.”
District 1 Commissioner Curtis Harvey hopes the sheriff puts the decals back on the vehicles.
“I still stand firm on the symbol on the stickers,” Harvey said. “I wish he would put them back on. I just feel like when God is on our side we can’t go anywhere but forward.”
Shoupe said the county is in a no-win situation, pointing the finger at Americans United.
“I’m a Christian. I’ve never been the type of person to wear it on my sleeve, and I have friends that are of different religions and I get along with everybody,” Shoupe said. “I think it’s just a sign of the times that we have these out-of-state groups with out-of-state money coming in here trying to tell us how we should conduct ourselves in Houston County. I think they’re just looking for a fight.”
Shoupe said he hasn’t received a single complaint about the decals from any of his constituents, and he expressed doubt that Americans United has received complaints from county residents.
He’s known about the situation for months and expected a lawsuit to be filed until the sheriff’s decision to remove the decals.
Dempsey said it was only a recommendation made to the sheriff, and in the end it was Valenza’s decision. He said the sheriff does not report to the county commission, that the sheriff reports to the governor of the State of Alabama. But he also said the sheriff’s vehicles are titled to the county.
Chairman Mark Culver is out of the country, and Shoupe suggested communication issues added to the problem.
“I think communication could’ve been there, and it’s unfortunate all this magically happened while the chairman is out of the country,” Shoupe said. “This probably should’ve been handled while he was here.”
District 2 Commissioner Doug Sinquefield urged residents to find a way to obtain the decals and place them on their own vehicles.
“If the citizens of the county would find out where to get those decals and how to get them and put those decals on their cars like (Valenza) did, that would show the people are standing up for what they believe in,” Sinquefield said.
A Facebook page, “I support Blessed are the Peacemakers on the Houston County Sheriff’s cars” has been created by supporters of the decals.
Follow Matt on Twitter @ElofsonMatt.