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Lawsuit Against Florida City That Held Christian Prayer Vigil to Fight Crime Can Proceed, Says Judge

Last year, Chief Greg Graham of the Ocala Police Department in Florida posted an unusual letter to the department’s Facebook page. Co-signed by community development director for the Ocala/Marion County Family YMCA Narvella Haynes, the letter called for public prayer to help stop crime:

Last year, Chief Greg Graham of the Ocala Police Department in Florida posted an unusual letter to the department’s Facebook page. Co-signed by community development director for the Ocala/Marion County Family YMCA Narvella Haynes, the letter called for public prayer to help stop crime:

We are facing a crisis in the City of Ocala and Marion County that requires fervent prayer and your presence to show unity and help in this senseless crime spree that is affecting our communities.

I am urging you all to please support a very important “Community Prayer Vigil” that will be held this coming Wednesday, September 24, 2014 at 6:30 pm to be held at our Downtown Square located in the heart of the City.

It sounded almost self-defeating for a Chief of Police to say, “The best solution we have to stop crime is prayer!” (What was Plan B? Waving a white flag?)

I don’t know why he didn’t ask the community to report suspicious activity, or call on politicians to enforce tougher gun control laws, or ask for more government funding for the police department, or (on a broader/long-term scale) look for ways to get people out of poverty so some of them don’t feel the need to resort to crime.

The fact is prayer isn’t going to fix anything. If it did, crime would’ve stopped everywhere a long time ago.

There’s nothing wrong with having people come together as one to show that they won’t stand for what’s being done in their community — we’ve seen that in places like Ferguson and Baltimore — but that’s not what the letter said. Hell, promoting prayer (and does anyone doubt it’s a Christian prayer?) likely divided the community much more than it brought it together.

The American Humanist Association’s David Niose eventually wrote a letter to the Chief, calling on him to remove the letter from their page and asking for reassurance that the police department (as a government entity) would not be participating in the event.

For a police department to say that a spree of violence “requires fervent prayer” is an endorsement of religion that violates the First Amendment, as is your statement: “I am urging you all to please support the very important Community Prayer Vigil.” There are many ways the police can support a community that is experiencing a crime spree, but such religious proselytizing is not an acceptable means. A government call to “show unity” through prayer is in fact inherently divisive, as is evidenced by the numerous complaints posted beneath your letter on Facebook. Religious leaders and private citizens may organize such events, but please keep the apparatus of government out of it.

Nothing ever came of that. The original post is still up on the police department’s Facebook page and they took part in the prayer vigil. (They didn’t just quietly attend, either. They participated.)

It didn’t stop there. A resident complained about the problem to Ocala’s Mayor Kent Guinn, only to have him respond with this:

There is nothing in the constitution to prohibit us from having this vigil. Not only are we not canceling it we are trying to promote it and have as many people as possible to join us. We open every council meeting with a prayer. And we end the prayer in Jesus name we pray. our city seal says “God be with us” and we pray that he is and us with him.

In November, after the polite warning was rejected, the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center filed a lawsuit against the department claiming this was a constitutional violation:

The lawsuit challenges the city and the police department’s practice of promoting Christianity at a community prayer vigil, held on September 24 and attended by representatives from the Ocala Police Department, who wore their official badges. Some of these police department representatives preached Christianity in a revivalist, evangelical style that encouraged a call-and-response from the audience. Speakers from the police department also prayed, sang religious songs and delivered Christian sermons. The event came after objections from individuals in the community, who learned about the prayer vigil when the police department created a public Facebook post containing a letter encouraging members of the community to support the prayer vigil. The letter was written on official department letterhead and signed by the police chief and a representative of Ocala’s New Zion Missionary Baptist Church.

“Using the machinery of the state to advance a religious agenda is an abuse of police power and a clear violation of the Establishment Clause,” said Monica Miller, an attorney with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.

“Police departments should protect the public, not promote religion or proselytize Christianity,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “Seeing uniformed officers engaging in religious activity pressures other community members into participating in those same exercises and portrays those who fail to do so as outsiders and second-class citizens.”

The AHA asked for a declaration that the department’s actions violated the Establishment Clause and an injunction so that they wouldn’t do it again in the future.

There’s a bit of an update to this story.

City officials tried to get the lawsuit tossed out of court entirely. But a judge has now permitted the lawsuit to move forward.

Judge Philip R. Lammens said that the AHA as an organization lacked standing to sue, and that they could not sue the Police Department, Mayor, or Police Chief specifically… however, the individuals represented by the AHA could still sue the city of Ocala. (In other words, the Judge limited who really had a right to sue and eliminated any redundancy in who could be sued.)

The AHA is fine with that:

“We’re pleased that the case may go forward, and we will continue seeking relief for the local citizens whose rights were violated by this unconstitutional religious activity,” said David Niose, legal director of the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, which filed the case on behalf of the three local plaintiffs.

As I said before, I don’t see how the police department can possibly say they weren’t promoting Christianity when the evidence is crystal clear. More importantly, they were wasting time that might have been spent actually fighting crime.

(Large portions of this article were published earlier)

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