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Debate Over Crosses on Cop Cars in West Texas

Image of Brewster County Sheriff's Department vehicle, as submitted in a request to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton by 83rd District Attorney Rod Ponton.

Update, January 5, 2016: Attorney General Ken Paxton acknowledged receipt of 83rd District Attorney Rod Ponton's request and will issue an opinion on the matter by June 20, 2016.

Yesterday, we reported on a potential church-and-state conflict in Alpine, referring to the "establishment clause" in the U.S. Constitution. Brewster County Sheriff Ronnie Dodson has been allowing his deputies to place decals of crosses on their patrol cars. On social media, support in the community has been strong, but the action upset some residents.

Rod Ponton – the 83rd District Attorney - was clear about what he thought: "I believe that what the sheriff in Alpine did – Ronnie Dodson – by allowing his deputies to place a cross on their cars - is not violating any law and is not compelling anyone to believe anything."

On Monday, at the request of the Sheriff’s office, he sent a letter to the Texas Attorney General, Ken Paxton, asking him to intercede. But that wasn’t the only letter sent that day.

"This is a clear-cut case in Brewster County, where putting a Latin cross on patrol vehicles is certainly a message that favors one religion, Christianity, over all others and all minority religions," said Sam Grover, a staff attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation. They also sent a letter on Monday, but to Sheriff Dodson, asking him to reconsider his position.

According to Grover, "the Sheriff’s Office is sending a message that it prefers Christianity over minority faith and religion generally over non-religion and that is something that the Supreme Court has consistently held violates the Establishment Clause." These decals must not be placed on County property, the letter states.

Ponton points to other Texas cases that support the use of similar symbols: "The Texas Attorney General in two opinions recently has said that putting Ten Commandments on a courthouse lawn, putting a crèche on a courthouse square, and putting "In God We Trust" on a patrol vehicle, all are OK. They don’t violate the law."

Those occurred this month and last month in the Texas towns of Childress and Orange. The Freedom From Religion Foundation got involved in both those cases. Prompting Paxton to complain: "The FFRF has a history of demanding what the law does not require."

Grover waves off this criticism: "The Texas Attorney General is making some political statements, rather than relying on the law there. And we believe that’s inappropriate."

On Tuesday, Governor Greg Abbott ordered a non-demonational "winter solstice" display, supported by the FFRF, be removed from the Texas Capitol.

In Alpine, Grover says his foundation might consider getting involved in a lawsuit if a local resident were to make a legal complaint and become a plaintiff in a case. Ponton expects the Attorney General to add his opinion in the next month.

Former KRTS/KXWT News Director