Religious Law

Deputy who witnessed 'skivvies'-clad colleague baptize woman after traffic stop can't escape suit, federal judge rules

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A woman who claims that she allowed a “skivvies”-clad Tennessee sheriff’s deputy to baptize her based on his promise of leniency can continue to pursue her lawsuit against another deputy who witnessed the “desacralized rite,” a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Travis R. McDonough of the Eastern District of Tennessee at Chattanooga partly ruled for plaintiff Shandle Marie Riley in her suit against the witness, Hamilton County Sheriff’s Deputy Jacob Goforth.

In his April 7 opinion, McDonough said Riley could pursue two claims under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act. They are:

• That Goforth failed to prevent an unconstitutional Fourth Amendment seizure—her baptism.

• That Goforth failed to prevent an improper endorsement of religion under the First Amendment.

Another deputy, Daniel Wilkey, had detained Riley during the February 2019 traffic stop and had performed the baptism at Soddy Lake, Riley had alleged her in lawsuit.

The incident unfolded after Wilkey pulled Riley over in the driveway of the home of her former mother-in-law. He asked Riley what she had in the car, and she confessed that she had a marijuana roach, McDonough said.

Wilkey told Riley to get out of her car, searched her for about 20 seconds and handcuffed her. During the search, Riley alleges, Wilkey inappropriately touched her crotch and asked her to pull up her shirt and shake out her shirt and bra. Wilkey found a marijuana cigarette on Riley but found nothing else in her car.

Next, they discussed religion, according to Riley’s allegations. Wilkey asked Riley whether she had been baptized. He allegedly told Riley that “God [was] talking to him,” and he would write her only a citation if she got baptized. He also allegedly said he would speak on Riley’s behalf in court if she went along with the plan.

At the time, Riley testified, she thought that Wilkey was “a God-fearing, churchlike man who saw something … in [her], that God talked to him,” and “it felt good to believe that for a minute.”

Riley went inside her former mother-in-law’s home to get towels for the ritual. When the woman asked why, Riley replied, “I guess I’m fixing to get baptized.”

Riley followed Wilkey in her car to Soddy Lake. En route, Wilkey called Goforth to the lake to witness the baptism. Goforth didn’t know that Riley had been cited for a criminal offense until he arrived. Goforth also claimed that he asked Wilkey whether he had thought about the baptism in an effort to get him to reconsider, but Wilkey wanted to proceed.

When preparing for the baptism, Wilkey allegedly told Riley that he would “strip down to my skivvies,” but she should leave her clothes on. Wilkey “removed all his clothing except his underwear and T-shirt,” while Riley removed only her shoes.

Wilkey submerged Riley in the water, while Goforth recorded the event on his cellphone. Riley claimed that one of Wilkey’s arms was touching her breast during the baptism, but Goforth’s recording appears to show that he was holding only her arm.

Riley contended that Goforth smirked at her, an allegation that he denies, and said she knew at that point that the baptism had nothing to do with God. Rather, it “had something to do with power and control.”

McDonough said Goforth was not protected by qualified immunity because his failure to intervene violated clearly established rights.

Even though the facts of the case were unusual, that doesn’t mean that Goforth is protected, McDonough said.

“If anything, the truly bizarre nature of these facts should have put Goforth further on notice that the seizure was inappropriate,” McDonough said.

McDonough ruled against Riley on other claims, however. He dismissed her tort claims against Goforth, along with Section 1983 claims alleging an unreasonable search, a failure to protect and a failure to report.

Hat tip to Courthouse News Service, which noted the opinion. The Chattanoogan also has coverage.

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