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***Update*** (4/14): The woman at the center of the lawsuit, Shandle Marie Riley, was found dead last night. The cause of death is currently unknown.


A judge will allow lawsuit to proceed against two former Tennessee police officers accused of baptizing a woman against her will.

The decision comes more than two years after the alleged incident, and some of the charges were dismissed by the judge, but the underlying story remains a troubling example of what can happen when government officials treat Christianity as a default religion for everyone.

The incident in question occurred in February of 2019. According to a lawsuit filed later that year by Shandle Marie Riley, she was driving at night, pulled into a gas station, filled up her car, bought some cigarettes, and left to go visit her son. When she arrived at his place, Deputy Daniel Wilkey stopped her in the driveway and asked her to get out of the car for reasons that weren’t clear.

He searched her, touching all parts of her body, even asking her to remove her bra to shake it out. She later admitted to having a “roach” on her, which she handed over. By this time, another unnamed officer arrived. (That officer was later said to be Tyler McRae.)

Then things got weirder.

Wilkey then approached Plaintiff and asked her if she was “saved” and believed in Jesus Christ.

Plaintiff stated that she believed in Jesus Christ, but that she was not “saved” by her own choice.

Wilkey then told Plaintiff that God was talking to him during the vehicle search, and Wilkey felt the Lord wanted him to baptize the Plaintiff.

Wilkey further told Plaintiff that he felt “the spirit.”

Riley was told to go in the house and grab some towels, and that if he could baptize her, he would only issue a criminal citation for the marijuana. (What else he might have written her up for was not clear.) Riley agreed to this deal because it meant she wouldn’t go to jail. She felt she had to get baptized because the consequences of saying no would have been more severe.

She followed Wilkey in her car to nearby Soddy Lake, where Deputy Jacob Goforth showed up on the scene to act as a “witness” to the ritual.

Wilkey then stripped nearly naked, with only his boxer shorts on.

Wilkey then gave Plaintiff the option to strip too, but Plaintiff declined.

He baptized her against her will. She said in the lawsuit she felt “horribly violated” but that she never felt “free to simply ignore” him or “not do as he commanded.” When it was all over and they were drying off, Goforth “smirked” at her.

At the time the lawsuit was filed, NewsChannel 9 in Chattanooga obtained a copy of Wilkey’s initial citation for Riley. It didn’t mention the baptism at all. It did cite her for a “tinted window violation and license tag obstruction,” and included her admission of having a joint in her possession.

Riley sued the two deputies and the Hamilton County Government for $1 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages. Wilkey resigned from his position in December of 2019.

That’s where we had left off until this month, where there was finally some movement in the case.

Last Thursday, U.S. District Judge Travis R. McDonough agreed to allow the lawsuit to proceed… but with some modifications.

In a 29-page ruling that includes a summary of what we’ve learned in testimonies, McDonough explained how Goforth (the other cop on the scene) didn’t realize the full extent of what was happening. Goforth thought Wilkey was baptizing someone he knew and wanted a witness… not that he was baptizing someone he had just “cited for a criminal offense.”

While excluding Goforth from most complaints in the lawsuit, the judge did say the former deputy had failed to protect the woman from Wilkey’s use of excessive force.

Goforth is qualified for reasonable immunity and summary judgment on this claim,” the judgment said. However, the ruling also found that Goforth had ample time to stop Wilkey from committing an unreasonable seizure.

“And, if anything, the truly bizarre nature of these facts should have put Goforth further on notice that the seizure was inappropriate,” the judge wrote.

Ultimately “claims against [Goforth] individually for unreasonable search, failure to protect and render aid, negligence, battery, assault, and intentional infliction of emotional distress” were dismissed in the judgment.

Even if the claims against Goforth are mostly dismissed, the more serious actions committed by Wilkey will still be ripe for adjudication. The Chattanooga Times Free Press notes that this is hardly the first time Wilkey has been accused of wrongdoing.

Wilkey faces numerous lawsuits in several cases involving alleged excessive use of force, including the alleged unlawful body cavity search of a man while performing a traffic stop and the alleged groping of female minors. The requested damages in the lawsuits total around $11 million.

According to Hamilton County Court documents, Wilkey has been indicted on 44 charges, including six counts of sexual battery, two counts of rape, nine counts of official oppression, extortion, stalking and assault, among others.

In fact, Riley’s lawsuit against Wilkey wasn’t even the only civil rights lawsuit filed against him THAT DAY.

He’s just a horrible guy in every sense of the word. And yet this latest legal controversy involves him allegedly forcing a baptism on a woman who didn’t feel she could say no. Is anyone surprised by the fact that Wilkey is Christian? They shouldn’t be. Guys like him always justify misconduct by pointing to their faith; the sad thing is how many people fall for it.

This case is far from over. It remains to be seen what punishment, if any, Wilkey receives for this particular situation.

It should go without saying how disturbing the allegations are. What would Wilkey have done if Riley refused to be baptized? What if she wasn’t Christian? What changes has the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office made in the wake of this story?

No one should be forced to adopt Christianity under threat of punishment. It says a lot about a faith if some people “choose” it only because they fear the other option is jail.

(via Raw Story)

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.