The South Carolina Department of Public Safety is going to stop giving a book to people whose family members are killed in car wrecks after an Anderson resident complained about the book's religious content.
The American Humanist Association contacted the state agency Wednesday with a letter saying that the book, "A Time to Grieve," violates the First Amendment by promoting Christianity. According to the letter, an Anderson woman who identifies as an atheist received the book from the state Department of Public Safety several weeks after her father died of injuries suffered in an October car wreck. The woman sought the association's help to send a complaint to the state.
The woman's identity is not disclosed in the letter, and officials with the association said this week that she does not want to speak publicly about the incident.
The association's letter cites multiple examples of religious messages in the book, including a Bible passage from Psalms: "Be merciful to me, LORD, for I am faint; O LORD, heal me, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in anguish. How long, O LORD, how long?"
The book includes a passage that says “Even if your hold on God seems to slip at times — don’t worry. God has a firm hold on you." The book also includes a chapter called "If God Seems Far Away."
"This is a clear establishment-clause violation," David Niose, legal director of the American Humanist Association, said in a Wednesday interview, before the state agency's decision had been announced. "This is not a close call at all."
Niose said his organization more commonly sees things such as the placing of a nativity scene or the Ten Commandments on public property.
"But we have never seen a government office send out Christian literature,without even knowing anything about the religious background of the person it is being sent to," he said. "This is really just stunning and incredibly insensitive. A church-state violation like this is pretty jaw dropping."
Sherri Iacobelli, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety, said Thursday that the complaint is the only known one the agency has received about the book.She said the complaint caused the state agency to reconsider sending out the book.
"Our troopers and officers see firsthand every day the terrible human toll of losing a loved one, and we have compassion for these families," she said in a prepared statement. "Through the years, family members have reached out to the department in search of resources following a motor vehicle collision. In addition to meeting our basic mission of investigating the collision, victims’ families receive a sympathy card from us; a booklet that provides guidance about planning and considerations after a sudden loss; and the 'A Time to Grieve' booklets, which we recently began disseminating."
She said the agency spent $6,426 on the books. She said the money came out of the state Department of Public Safety's regular budget and miscellaneous funds for fees collected from the sale of collision reports.
"The books were chosen because they have helpful information about coping with a loss and what to expect from the grieving process especially during that difficult first year," she said.
Iacobelli acknowledged that the book contains scriptural references, but said that its the primary content "offers compassionate guidance for navigating the grieving process," which the state agency thought would be valuable for families.
"We regret that any family member would have misunderstood our intentions or was offended by our effort to offer compassion during such a difficult time," she said. "Since this concern was brought to our attention, we have re-evaluated the 'A Time to Grieve' and will no longer send those particular pieces of literature to families following the death of a loved one in a motor-vehicle collision."
Niose said the American Humanist Association had not heard about the state agency's decision as of Thursday afternoon.
"We would certainly be pleased with that," he said. "It is the outcome we were hoping for."
The association advocates on behalf of atheists, humanists and people who identify as nonreligious.
Anderson County Coroner Greg Shore, who often responds to fatal accidents, said Thursday that he has seen state troopers hand out literature for families after a death. Shore said that he has also handed out "compassionate literature" himself.
"We have compassionate literature that we give out to grieving families when it's respectful and appreciated," Shore said. "If somebody doesn't want it, we aren't going to give it to them, but no one has ever complained to us."
Shore, who also owns Medshore Ambulance Service, said he believes most families he deals with are grateful for anything that will help them in a time of grief.
"By far, more people here appreciate it," he said. "I believe in God, and I don't mind offering up a prayer or anything I can for a family. Most seem to appreciate it. If someone doesn't want something, I don't understand why they wouldn't just throw it in the trash instead of making a complaint."