Here is an edited version of the speech Jesse Castillo gave as one of FFRF’s Freethinkers of the Year. He delivered it on Sept. 16, 2017, at FFRF’s 40th annual convention in Madison, Wis. Castillo was introduced by FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover:
Two brave members, Kevin Price and Jesse Castillo, served as local plaintiffs essential to the survival of FFRF’s lawsuit against Brewster County, Texas. It took courage and conviction to do what they did. They live in Brewster County and were willing to be named plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the aggressive religious endorsement of crosses on police vehicles. It took even more courage because they were active in the law enforcement community. After we filed, the office took down the crosses.
Jesse Castillo was born in Spain during his father’s military service and grew up in Panama, New Mexico, Louisiana and Florida. In the early 1990s, he served in the U.S. Army, graduating from Army Ranger School. He then earned a degree from Miami-Dade College and later moved to Brewster County, where he took a job in law enforcement.
Thank you, Jesse, for standing up for the First Amendment. You are deserving of the title: Freethinker of the Year.
By Jesse Castillo
I’m really glad that the Freedom From Religion Foundation has no problem messing with Texas.
I’m not originally from Texas. My wife and I, along with our three boys, moved to Alpine, Texas, in 2007. Alpine is in Brewster County, which is the largest county in Texas. However, its population is only about 9,000, and about 6,000 of those live in Alpine.
About two years ago, Christian crosses began appearing on our local sheriff’s police vehicles. The crosses were basically large stickers in the shape of a Christian cross that were placed on the back windows of some of the police vehicles. The crosses also featured a thin blue line representing support for law enforcement.
Not all of the police vehicles from the Brewster County Sheriff’s Office had these Christian crosses on them, and the sheriff himself, Ronny Dodson, didn’t actually order his deputies to display them. He just allowed his deputies to place the crosses on their assigned police vehicle if they wanted to. Of course, some of his deputies went ahead and did just that. The sheriff told our local newspaper that allowing the crosses to be displayed in this manner was his way of showing his support for his deputies.
Those Christian cross stickers that were used back then are still being sold in a small print shop in our town, and our lawsuit actually led to the boosting of sales. The crosses are currently displayed on many private vehicles in Alpine. Of course, we were not trying to stop people from placing crosses on their personal vehicles.
During the time crosses were being displayed on police vehicles, there was some online debate on the Sheriff’s Department’s Facebook page. And there was a popular post on its Facebook page that had thousands of likes and was highly shared. This particular post stated: “Dodson wanted God’s protection over his deputies and the thin blue line on the crosses stands for law enforcement.”
So, it was a belief among some Christians that just the mere presence of a cross could help protect law enforcement officers. Well, as an atheist, I can think of real ways for increasing the safety of our police officers. Better training or even better equipment would be much more effective than relying on a cross.
I have friends and family members that seem to think it’s not that big of a deal, and they definitely don’t think that something like this is important enough to sue over. Well, it is. It is worth taking action to try and stop violations like this to prevent bigger problems down the road. Crosses on government property obviously go against our nation’s principle of the separation of church and state. For our county, it was basically saying: “Our sheriff’s department knows which religion is the one true correct religion, and if you believe in that religion, too, then you are on the right side.” It was very divisive.
When our local police officers were displaying these crosses, it made me (and others) wonder if our sheriff’s deputies were going to be fair and impartial to a public that includes people of different faiths, or to people like myself who identify as atheist.
Road to atheism
I wasn’t always nonreligious. I grew up going to Christian churches and I was actually very enthusiastic about Christianity at an early age. But shortly after reaching adulthood and entering the U.S. Army, I had already seen too many inconsistencies in the bible and inconsistencies in what I was being taught in churches. I eventually decided that I could no longer call myself a Christian. I still believed in God and I had a strong fear of burning in hell, which kept me tormented and believing in God longer than I should have. But, through the years of analyzing my own beliefs about spirituality and about reality, I moved closer and closer to becoming an atheist.
Before I had ever met an open atheist, I basically believed that a more religious person would be a better person and an atheist would probably be a person who was more prone to engaging in immoral behavior. But, the first open atheist I ever got to know on a personal level turned out to be a person with good moral character, who had a good work ethic, and who had a good sense of humor. He was someone I admired and even looked up to. Having known this atheist, and many other atheists, helped to break down my misconceptions about what it means to be an atheist, and also what it doesn’t mean to be an atheist.
So, I think it helps when religious people get exposed to atheists who are open about their religious views, and it’s especially helpful when they get to know an atheist on a personal level. It’s important for atheists to not shy away from religious discussions. I recently had an atheist friend tell me that he doesn’t ever like to engage in religious discussions with people because he says you are never going to change their minds. That may be true, but I know from experience that you can get them to question their own beliefs, and over time they can change their stance.
It is very important for government to stay out of religion so that people can be more comfortable expressing their own religious views publicly. I would hate to think that if we hadn’t sued our county and allowed them to promote Christianity in that way, that it would have led to some closeted atheists to decide to remain closeted.
I happen to know a few closeted atheists and I know two that have come out recently. People should feel free to discuss religion without our government telling us which religion they think is the correct one. I actually enjoy it when Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses come knocking at my door. It gives me a chance to share my views and ask them questions, too. As an atheist, I also have some good news to share.
Potential for profiling
Another problem with having the Sheriff’s Department displaying Christian crosses has to do with the potential for profiling. I have never heard of a case of police profiling against an atheist before, but because some Christians already think atheists are just bad people and somehow morally bankrupt, I wouldn’t put it past a religious fundamentalist with crazy ideas who happens to be a police officer to begin feeling emboldened and to act out in the name of his or her religion, especially when their department is giving them a wink and a nod. I just think that mixing law enforcement with religion is a very bad idea.
I have not faced any backlash over this lawsuit yet, and I just wanted to mention that Sheriff Dodson’s family members are actually really good people. I have known his son for many years and worked with him in the past, and the sheriff’s wife is a fantastic veterinarian who has taken care of my pets and my co-plaintiff Kevin Price’s pets for many years. They have been good to me before the lawsuit and they continue to be friendly toward me even after the lawsuit. As I said, our town is very small, but most people I have met there are very good people. I think they just made a bad decision and I’m glad we were there to correct it.
I really want to thank the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the two outstanding attorneys involved in this case, Sam Grover and Randall Kallinen. I also want to thank my good friend and former co-worker Kevin Price, who couldn’t be here today. Thank you!