With public health restrictions soon to lift across Washington, the sheriff of Klickitat County has rattled his community by promising a crusade if state leaders ever reinstate them.
Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer said he would “arrest, detain and recommend prosecution” of any elected official or government workers who would try to enforce future public health guidances, like mask mandates or social distancing.
Songer said he took an oath to the “Supreme Judge of the Universe” as sheriff, a statement he defended by asserting the constitutions of Washington state and the United States are built on Christianity.
“There has been a coordinated and constant effort by the media and some government agencies to justify the suspension or denial of God-given, constitutionally protected rights under a plea of emergency,” he wrote June 17 on Facebook.
Songer’s statements came as Washington plans to reopen June 30. They also come as new and dangerous variants, such as the “delta” variant, are emerging in the country.
First elected in 2014, Songer describes himself as a Constitutional sheriff, a strain of law enforcement officers who believe local authority supersedes federal and state authority. He made headlines for calling Gov. Jay Inslee “an idiot” for requiring masks last summer. Likewise, he refused to enforce regulations on semi-automatic weapons passed by voters in 2018.
Songer reiterated in an interview that he worries pandemic restrictions could return at Inslee’s orders.
“What’s to stop him – say, down the road a little further – that he can shut it down again because he claims we have more positive tests?” Songer told OPB. “This could be endless. It’s called control.”
Klickitat County, located in the Columbia River gorge with a population of 21,000, has seen 718 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 10 deaths, according to state data. The county has received 20,000 vaccine doses, and 36.6% of residents are fully vaccinated.
Songer said precautions should be voluntary, and repeatedly called state orders unconstitutional. He said if a private business tried to remove a customer for refusing to wear a mask, he wouldn’t cite or arrest that person.
In a scenario of workplace safety regulators attempting to fine a business for violating state orders, Songer said he would try to warn and even arrest the agent.
“They’re knowingly violating this person’s and business’s constitutional rights, with unreasonable fines,” he said. “So they’ll say, ‘Well, they can appeal to an administrative hearing.’ Well, an administrative judge works for? Works for Inslee, right? How do you think that’s going to fare out?”
In the interview, Songer also doubled down on his assertions the U.S. Constitution reflects he has religious authority.
“Your rights are guaranteed by God. These are God-given rights. The Constitution is merely carrying out the God-given rights. So, no, I don’t see any conflict there at all,” he said.
Songer noted many people have embraced his statements. He said thousands engaged with the post on Facebook. But his statements have also infuriated many.
County pushes back
Erin Quinn, Klickitat County Public Health Director, emailed commissioners the following day that Songer’s statements unnerved her staff, who already faced vitriol throughout the pandemic. Quinn wrote she already adjusted some staff duties for safety.
“While I feel my staff have been admirable in their ability to brush off these threats, threats of this nature coming from the sheriff himself are creating an environment where staff fear for their livelihood as public health employees,” Quinn wrote, noting the sheriff is a leader in the community.
Klickitat County’s Board of County Commissioners criticized Songer’s statements on Tuesday. In a letter, board members wrote they respected the sheriff but called his statement threatening and intimidating.
“Our county employees should not be made to feel unsafe in their working environment. All elected officials and employees should be allowed to do their job without fear of personal or physical attacks, caused by the rhetoric of an elected official,” the letter read.
Commissioner Jacob Anderson said any challenges to state mandates should go through the courts. He said the sheriff has been hands-off during the pandemic, but a turn toward arrests could become taxpayers’ liability.
“I’m sorry, but if you don’t like a law… there are three branches of government for a darn good reason,” Anderson said. “I’m not really worried about his coming around and arresting us, but the letter can be interpreted by different segments in various different ways.”
During the board’s meeting, multiple callers voiced concerns Songer himself violated the Constitution’s separation of church and state clause. They also worried Songer or his deputies would arrest people through their own interpretation of the Constitution.
“I’m not going to stand by and allow a sheriff and the department to threaten our elected officials with the possibility of being arrested because he deemed something in his own interpretation as to what is constitutional and what’s not,” said Gabrielle Gilbert, a resident. “He is not a supreme being and he is not the only authority.”