Tim Jeffries, director of the Department of Economic Security, broke no laws in emailing agency staffers about his trip to Lourdes and offering to take their written “special intentions” to the holy grotto, the Attorney General’s Office concluded on Aug. 11.
Paul Watkins, chief of the agency’s civil division, acknowledged that Jeffries used the state’s email system to send out not only a note ahead of his trip but several follow-ups from France, including pictures.
The emails drew a complaint from Madeline Ziegler, a legal fellow of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
She said it crossed a line between government officials engaged in personal activity and providing “credibility or prestige to their religion by using the weight of their government office and government title.” Ziegler said it amounted to compelling staff to track Jeffries’ letters for his “personal religious vacation” and was improper use of government email “to recount details of that person’s religious trip to all employees.”
In a response, Watkins sidestepped the question of whether Jeffries’ emails endorsed religion.
Instead, he concluded that the messages — even if sent through the state email system — are “private speech.”
Watkins said there is nothing inherently illegal about state employees using state computers and email for private messages. And he said there also is nothing wrong about people at any workplace discussing their personal religious views.
“A workplace email about a person trip is not an ‘exploitation’ of ‘government power’ merely because the workplace is a government agency,” Watkins wrote.
“To say otherwise ultimately would result in a prohibition against any government employee from referencing any religious belief in any email composed on a government computer, regardless of the content or the recipients,” he said.