I Sued The Sheriff: Unmasked Blogger Gets Some Justice In Florida

What would theocracy look like if it ever came to America?

Perhaps it would involve government agents working on behalf of a preferred religious group and ferreting out religious dissenters. It’s a scary thought, but what’s scarier is that this already has happened in Jacksonville, Fla., according to a report by the Associated Baptist Press.

After an anonymous blogger criticized Jacksonville’s First Baptist Church and its pastor Mac Brunson, Sheriff’s Office Detective Robert Hinson engaged in a crusade to find out the blogger’s identity. Operating at the church’s request, Hinson – a member of the congregation who served on the pastor’s security detail – even secured a subpoena from the State Attorney’s Office ordering the Internet service to provide the information.

The investigation pointed to Tim Rich, a member of First Baptist for more than 20 years. He operated FBC Jax Watchdog and often wrote critical blogs about the church, which is one of the largest congregations in the country and one of the most prominent in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Rich said he hoped his commentary would encourage more discussion, but he wanted to remain anonymous. Once he was exposed, the church obtained trespass warnings against him and began proceedings to revoke his membership. Before that could happen, Rich and his wife voluntarily left and joined another congregation.

Rich filed a federal lawsuit in 2009 claiming the government, in conducting this investigation, violated church-state separation and his free speech rights. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office chose to settle the case.

As part of the settlement, the Sheriff’s Office agreed to study its conflict-of-interest code for detectives and develop a training program on First Amendment considerations. Though the settlement doesn’t admit wrongdoing, Sheriff John Rutherford agreed to meet with Rich, his lawyers and the city's legal counsel to discuss ethical issues arising from the case.

State and city officials will also pay Rich $50,000.

“We are extremely pleased with this settlement, and believe that the lawsuit and its settlement will serve the interests of the citizens of Jacksonville through a strengthening of the JSO's ethical policies and training provided to detectives on constitutional First Amendment issues,” Rich wrote on his blog Oct. 20. “We are very grateful to Sheriff Rutherford in agreeing to meet with us personally to address these issues, and think this is an example of excellent governmental leadership on his part.”

This situation gives us a little taste of what our country would be like if the government becomes too cozy with religious groups. Official action against dissenters would be just one of the ways our freedom would be in jeopardy.

Of course, there is always a small contingent of people like the pastor at First Baptist who think the government should be in their pocket. Religious Right groups, for example, wish to control the government and impose a narrow worldview on the rest of Americans.

Fortunately, our Constitution broadly protects us from these types of antics. Since we don’t live in a theocracy, the situation in Jacksonville had a happy ending, and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office is well on its way to recovery.

PS: Note that this story is from the Associated Baptist Press, a news agency that does fine reporting on developments in Baptist denominational life as well as public affairs concerns that Baptists ought to know about. The ABP just celebrated its 20th anniversary. Happy Anniversary, ABP! Keep up the good work.