A Georgia police officer resigned after he says superiors forced him to choose between his job and the freedom to express his religious beliefs as a private citizen. Now, a law firm representing him has put city officials in Port Wentworth, Georgia, on notice about First Amendment violations.
According to a statement from First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based religious liberty law firm, superiors of Port Wentworth police officer Jacob Kersey ordered him to delete a Facebook post in which he expressed his belief in Biblical marriage. The department threatened him with termination after he decided he couldn’t remove his post in good conscience, and they further warned him not to express any “offensive” views. He eventually resigned.
“It is a blatant violation of state and federal civil rights laws to discriminate against someone for expressing their religious beliefs,” said Stephanie Taub, senior counsel for First Liberty Institute.
“The city owes Jacob a public apology. And it needs to adopt policies that recognize the free speech and free exercise rights of its employees. Forcing Jacob to choose to either censor his private religious speech or remain employed as a police officer is simply unconstitutional.”
First Liberty sent a letter warning Port Wentworth officials of First Amendment violations on Feb. 13 and urging them to adopt policies in keeping with First Amendment guarantees of free speech and religious expression.
Kersey, who joined the Port Wentworth police department in May 2022, posted the message to his private Facebook account on Jan. 2.
His post read: “God designed marriage. Marriage refers to Christ and the church. That’s why there is no such thing as homosexual marriage.”
The next day, a supervisor told him to remove his post because it might be offensive to some in their community. Officials gave him a letter of notification that warned him against such future posts and potential termination. After meeting with superiors, including then-Police Chief Matt Libby, and finding no resolution, Kersey resigned.
Libby, who compared Kersey’s marriage statement to using racial slurs, announced his retirement Jan. 31 after being accused of making more than $66,000 of unauthorized purchases in violation of city policies, television news station WTOC in nearby Savannah, Georgia, reported. A new police chief, Kerry Thomas, was sworn in Feb. 14.
In the city’s notification letter to Kersey, dated Jan. 13, police Maj. Bradwick Sherrod told Kersey that though no direct violations were found in an initial investigation of Kersey’s social media postings and his podcast, he could still be fired if violations were found or if the public were to perceive that Kersey could not perform his duties impartially.
Also, Sherrod wrote that Kersey’s posts and comments were “likely offensive to protected classes and could raise reasonable concerns regarding the objectivity in the performance of your job duties when a member, or suspected member, of the LGBTQ+ community is involved. … At all times you need to perform your duties as a sworn police officer impartially and to be perceived by the public as capable of doing so.”
Sherrod closed the letter by saying: “Officer Kersey, the intent of this notification and warning is to educate you on what will and will not be tolerated as an employee of this City.”
“It is my sincere hope that you succeed and take this situation as a learning lesson and move forewarned with your career,” Sherrod wrote.
In Kersey’s resignation letter, he says he was given an ultimatum to resign or be terminated once a new social media policy was put in place.
“The first step is to meet with the city and the police department and construct a new policy that respects the First Amendment rights of its employees,” Taub, Kersey’s attorney, told the Savannah Morning News. “Our main focus here is to prevent police officers like Jacob [Kersey] from being forced to choose between abandoning their religious beliefs or losing their jobs.”
Photo: Courtesy of First Liberty Institute