Court in Tennessee allows claims to go forward against officer for failure to intervene in forced baptism after traffic stop

by | Apr 14, 2022

Via Religion Clause, a federal district court in Tennessee largely denied Officer Jacob Goforth’s motion to dismiss claims against him stemming from his involvement in a bizarre traffic stop. The stop culminated in the baptism of Shandle Riley (the plaintiff in this case) by Hamilton County Deputy Daniel Wilkey.

After arresting Riley for possessing contraband in her car, Officer Wilkey allegedly offered to release Riley with only a citation if she agreed to let him baptize her. He subsequently called Goforth to meet him as a witness, and Goforth recorded the event with his cell phone.

In a lawsuit against both officers and the county, Riley included claims that both her religious liberty rights and her right against unreasonable search and seizure were violated during the incident. In denying Goforth’s motion to dismiss claims against him, the court found that a jury could reasonably find that he had failed to protect Riley’s rights by allowing the baptism to go forward, and that he should have known that the action undertaken by Wilkey was unlawful.

Here is an excerpt from the opinion:

Baptism of detainees by law-enforcement officers runs directly counter to the government’s substantial interest in guaranteeing the free exercise of religion without government intervention. Any seizure for the purpose of conducting a baptism intruded upon Riley’s liberty without furthering any government interest and was therefore unreasonable. . . . [A]ny reasonable officer in Goforth’s position would have known that a baptism is an improper basis for a seizure.

In evaluating the First Amendment claims, the court determined that there are sufficient facts in dispute regarding whether Riley was coerced into the baptism to allow her Establishment Clause claim against Goforth to proceed, but it emphasized that a finding of coercion is not necessary for Riley to prevail on that claim.

A state actor improperly endorses religion “if a reasonable observer would think that that the activity is a governmental endorsement of religion.” … Applying this test, courts have found that the government endorses religion when the act at issue is inherently religious in nature. A baptism…is an unambiguously religious practice that does not have a conceivable secular purpose. There is no indication in the record that either officer understood or intended the baptism as anything but an exercise of faith and religion. Any reasonable observer would conclude that the effect of the baptism was an unequivocal endorsement of Christianity. Consequently, Goforth had fair warning at the time that the baptism of a private citizen by an on-duty law-enforcement officer was an improper endorsement of religion.

On-duty officers should not be able to use their position of authority to pressure citizens into engaging in religious activity. That much is, hopefully, clear. What the court’s opinion importantly emphasizes is that an assisting officer cannot simply stand by and watch while another officer violates a citizen’s constitutional rights. Maybe even more importantly, as quoted above, the court also explained that government officials need not blatantly coerce citizens into religious activity to be guilty of offending the Establishment Clause. 

The government has improperly endorsed religion, the court noted, when officials engage in “inherently religious” activity in their official positions.

You can read the opinion, and the (frankly) shocking account of the facts, here.