The removal of a beloved plaque with a Bible verse at Knoxville Police Department headquarters began with an accident.
“One of our members had gone to the police department to give a report on an accident he had been a witness to,” said Aleta Ledendecker, head of the East Tennessee chapter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
The member, whom she did not identify, was ushered into an area of the Safety Building, as KPD headquarters is known, where the public isn’t allowed — without permission and escort. It was there the member saw the plaque on the wall bearing a verse from Romans 8:31.
That plaque — with its message of “if God be for us, then who can be against us” — has adorned the wall of the Safety Building for decades and through entire generations of officers. Officers cited it as a comfort each time they headed out to fight crime. Police Chief David Rausch called it “motivational,” not promotional of religion.
But after three threatening letters from Ledendecker, an atheist and lifetime member of the foundation, Mayor Madeline Rogero decided to take the plaque from the wall and put it in a police museum at the same building. That decision was announced to officers by Rausch Tuesday and has spurred a firestorm of controversy and upset both in the community and among the ranks.
Ledenbecker is unapologetic.
“It’s really irrelevant whether it’s in a public area,” she said Wednesday in an interview with USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee. “This is where any police officer or any person coming through intake (where prisoners are sometimes escorted) can see it. That could be a Muslim. It could be a person who follows Judaism. Because of that, it’s not OK. The problem is it’s quoting one religion.”
Law Director Charles Swanson told USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee on Tuesday he believes the city could have defended the plaque in court but ultimately decided to mothball it instead in the museum.
Ledendecker said she only learned of that decision when USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee first reported on it Wednesday morning.
She sent her first letter in February and another in April with no response. She sent a third in which she gave the city a two-week deadline to answer.
She said that deadline ran out on Monday, and Deputy Law Director Ron Mills contacted her to say the city was investigating. Rausch sent an email to staff Tuesday morning with the decision.
An online petition to keep the plaque that was started early Wednesday had about 800 signatures as of 5 p.m.
The group was founded by an atheist and her mother in Wisconsin in 1976. Relying on donations, it has grown to include 20,000 members and 13 paid staffers. The East Tennessee chapter was launched roughly a year ago, Ledendecker said.
In the past several years, the parent group has sent out warning letters to several governments in East Tennessee with a variety of complaints.
In 2012, for instance, the group demanded the Lenoir City Police Department remove the word “religion” from uniform patches that included two other words: education and industry. James Scott, then serving as Lenoir City attorney, refused. The word remains on the patches.
East Tennessee counties threatened with lawsuits over prayer at government meetings and religious plaques or phrases in courthouses have also largely refused to bow to the group’s demands. The words “In God We Trust” still adorn the walls behind many judges’ benches in East Tennessee.
The Sevier County Sheriff’s Office last year added the words “In God We Trust” to its cruisers, and Gov. Bill Haslam earlier this year penned his approval to a statewide license plate design bearing those words. But, with warning by the state Attorney General’s Office over the principle of separation of church and state, the governor decided to make the design optional for those who wish to have it.
The group also threatened suit in 2012 over prayer at University of Tennessee football games. It lost that battle, too, with UT refusing to budge. UT-Chattanooga opted after a threat to switch from prayer to a moment of silence.
The group has also tackled religion in schools. Ledendecker wouldn’t give details but said the East Tennessee chapter through a complaint to a school principal ended prayer in a kindergarten class and successfully pushed for the removal of a church sign at Holston Middle School.
The church rented space at the school for services after school hours, which has been ruled legally acceptable, but its sign for those services was visible to students, she said.
But it rarely follows through with actual legal action, and its success rate in court is limited. The group is most often stymied by what’s known as legal standing — a showing that the person or group filing suit has been harmed or has a legal stake in the matter.
There’s also the legal issue of whether mere words — on a sign, a cruiser or a courthouse wall — can be said to “promote religion” or one particular brand of religion.
The words “In God We Trust” are imprinted on cash by the U.S. Treasury department, and that has been repeatedly upheld. Student-led prayers have been upheld as constitutional. Displays of the Ten Commandments have been upheld as historical, rather than religious, depending on the context of the displays.
Ledendecker, a 65-year-old retiree and “proud” atheist, said the group prefers to avoid legal action. It’s costly, and the mere threat of a lawsuit can lead to the outcome the group wants, she said.
“We are not fighting against religion,” Ledendecker said. “We really just want to uphold the (principle) of separation of church and state. We find there’s a lot of foot dragging (by public officials) and a hope we’ll just go away.”