by Jorge Gomez • 5 min read
First Liberty is defending Jacob Kersey, a Georgia police officer who was forced to resign after he was told he could not share his religious beliefs on his personal social media account.
Our attorneys sent a letter this week to the Port Wentworth Police Department explaining that officials blatantly discriminated against Jacob:
“The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment protects Mr. Kersey’s right to express his Christian beliefs in his personal life and discuss his faith while off duty…The Free Exercise Clause does not permit the State to confine religious speech to whispers or banish it to broom closets. If it did, the exercise of one’s religion would not be free at all…The Department’s actions send a message to Christians who hold traditional biblical beliefs about marriage that they are unwelcome as police officers or city employees.”
We’re asking the city and the Police Department to issue a public statement committing to respect the First Amendment rights of its officers and to announce an official change of policy that’s fully consistent with the First Amendment.
19-year-old Jacob began working for the police department last May. He was excited to be an officer and serve the town of 12,000 near Savannah. He says everything was going well until he posted a brief message on Facebook: “God designed marriage. Marriage refers to Christ and the church. That’s why there is no such thing as homosexual marriage.”
The following day, his supervisor called ordering him to take down the post. However, Jacob believed he was being pressured to abandon his Christian beliefs and decided not to remove it. He subsequently met with the Police Chief and other department leaders, who outrageously said the post was the “same thing as saying the N-word and ‘F*** all those homosexuals’.” They said he could “not post things like that” and also said his free speech was limited due to his position as a police officer.
He was placed on administrative leave while the city investigated. About a week later, Jacob received a letter saying he could be terminated for any post on any of his private social media accounts or any other statement or action that could be perceived as offensive.
Jacob realized he faced a choice: Compromise his deeply held religious beliefs or continue as a police officer. Forced to choose between his faith and the job he loved, he had no choice but to resign.
The idea that an employer can threaten to fire an employee for simply expressing a deeply held religious belief while off-duty is chilling. The discrimination this young public servant faced could have come out of an Orwellian novel. The ominous “Speech Police” became all too real. City officials sought to control what Jacob was allowed to say, and decided his religious views were “inappropriate” for public viewing.
Beyond being outrageous and dystopian, the city’s actions are illegal. Federal law prevents Americans from being punished by their employers for expressing their religious beliefs. The law is clear: Employers cannot retaliate against employees because of their religious beliefs and practices. What’s more, they may not create a work environment that is hostile toward religion and must protect employees from harassment.
Police departments across the country have been confronting officer shortages in recent years. The Police Executive Research Forum—a nonprofit research and policy organization focusing on law enforcement—reported a 40% increase in resignations from 2020 to 2021. Fox News reported that major cities have been hemorrhaging officers from 2020 to 2022. Chicago lost more than 2,400 officers. New York lost 4,000. Philadelphia more than 800.
At a time when our nation faces a retention and recruitment crisis, it defies common sense to purge law enforcement of people such as Jacob just because of their faith. This only sends a hurtful message to religious Americans that they need not apply.
What the city and police did is wrong and violates the Constitution. They owe Jacob a public apology, and should take action to adopt policies that recognize the free speech and free exercise rights of their employees.