A North Carolina sheriff wanted his employees to follow a cohabitation policy in line with “the law and the word of God,” according to media outlets and a nonprofit advocacy organization.
Then he changed his mind.
In a September text message to employees, Scotland County Sheriff Ralph Kersey said he would change staff policy and bar employees from living with someone other than their spouse or blood family members. The text was shared with the Observer by the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation.
“It will be prohibited for you to live with another while employed at the Scotland County Sheriff’s Office unless you are officially married according to law and the word of God, sisters, brothers, or family by blood,” the text stated.
Scotland County is roughly 80 miles east of Charlotte.
An Oct. 2 letter to the sheriff sent on behalf of a concerned employee and penned by the foundation — which advocates for the separation of church and state — called it a “blatantly unconstitutional policy” and urged Kersey to stop enforcing it.
Kersey did not respond to requests for comment from the Observer. But he told the foundation in an email provided to the Observer that the cohabitation policy was never revised to include what the sheriff outlined in the text.
“Your email includes a screen shot of a text message that I sent to all employees indicating that there would be a change in the policy forthcoming,” he said in the email. “However, after careful consideration this change never occurred due to a fair policy for everyone and not making a policy change based on ones religion.”
The original text stated the policy change was “effective immediately!”
The text also clarified the policy wouldn’t apply to people currently cohabiting, stating instead that employees would not be allowed to move in with future partners if the “current relationship with the other party should cease.”
But Kersey told the Laurinburg Exchange he never followed through on his plans in the text.
“I realized using the ‘law and word of God’ might be unfair, regardless of my own beliefs,” he said, according to the newspaper.
In its letter to the sheriff, the foundation accused him of forcing his religious beliefs on employees.
By installing “a policy that limits employees’ behavior outside of work to that which you deem to be ‘according to the law and word of God,’ your office unconstitutionally promoted religion and threatens to punish those who believe differently,” the letter states.
The letter also cited a 2006 court decision ruling a North Carolina statute “banning cohabitation of unmarried persons” as unconstitutional.
“This policy rests on archaic notions of biblical morality that have no place dictating modern workplace guidelines,” foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a statement after the letter was sent. “It is a staggering violation of the rights of conscience of every Scotland County Sheriff’s Office employee.”
The sheriff met with employees afterward to “clear the air,” the Laurinburg Exchange reported.
‘Not a politician’
The Scotland County Sheriff’s Office references God and prayer on its Facebook page, a including banner photo that includes the phrase “In God We Trust.”
Kersey’s public Facebook page has similar references.
In a September post, the sheriff said he struggles as an elected official because he’s “not a politician.”
“Those who know me know I am the same during a election or not,” the post states. “At the end of the day what really matters is God knows my heart. My business is about Him and not you!”