Judge: FL City Officials Broke the Law by Promoting Prayer Vigil to Fight Crime

Back in 2014, Greg Graham, chief 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 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?)

He could have asked the community to report suspicious activity, or called on politicians to enforce tougher gun safety laws, or asked for more government funding for the police department, or (thinking long-term) looked for ways to get people out of poverty so some of them don’t feel the need to resort to crime.

Instead, he went with prayer.

There was nothing wrong with having people come together as one in opposition to bad things happening in their community — we’ve seen that in places like Ferguson and Baltimore — but that’s not what the letter said. If anything, promoting prayer (and was there any doubt this would be a Christian prayer?) would divide the community much more than it brought people 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 of 2014, 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 was hoping 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.

City officials tried to get the lawsuit tossed out of court entirely. But a judge permitted the lawsuit to move forward in 2015. Even though Judge Philip R. Lammens said the AHA as an organization lacked standing to sue, and that they could not sue the Police Department, Mayor, or Police Chief specifically, he pointed out that the individuals represented by the AHA could still sue the city of Ocala. (In other words, the Judge limited who had a right to sue and eliminated any redundancy in who could be sued.) In 2016, the AHA asked for summary judgment in the case.

It’s taken a long time for this case to be resolved, but it’s finally happened.

The AHA announced today that the prayer vigil promoted by the city was indeed illegal. Judge Timothy J. Corrigan issued a ruling that confirmed the AHA’s strongest arguments.

“In sum, under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the government cannot initiate, organize, sponsor, or conduct a community prayer vigil,” explained Judge Corrigan. “That is what happened here.”

“Police departments shouldn’t be endorsing religion, yet that’s exactly what the Ocala Police Department did here by sponsoring and promoting a prayer vigil,” said David Niose, AHA legal director. “We hope this ruling ensures that prayer rallies in the future will be run by churches, not police departments.”

One interesting part of the decision: The judge noted that even Chief Graham and Ocala’s attorneys agreed during oral arguments that the government couldn’t promote a prayer vigil without violating the law. But they argued that’s not what was happening at all because the vigil was “community-sponsored.”

After reviewing a number of relevant cases, the judge wrote:

… it is apparent that for purposes of the Establishment Clause, whether an activity “belongs to” or is “sponsored by” the government turns on the degree to which a government entity or official initiated, organized, facilitated, promoted, provided space for, paid for, supervised, participated in, regulated, censored, led, endorsed, encouraged, or otherwise controlled the activity. Applied here, these factors strongly indicate government sponsorship.

The judge concludes:

While the City paints this as a fleeting incident that could not possibly be deemed official policy so as to subject it to liability, in fact, the events here took place over the course of eight days, beginning with Chief Graham’s calling the meeting and culminating with the Prayer Vigil. During that time and as further described above, both Chief Graham and Mayor Guinn took many actions in their official roles in very public ways to initiate, organize, facilitate, promote, encourage, endorse, and otherwise sponsor the Prayer Vigil (all in the face of vocal opposition which pointed out the violation), easily subjecting the City of Ocala to liability for violating the Establishment Clause. The City of Ocala’s motion for summary judgment is due to be denied and the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment as to the City of Ocala is due to be granted.

For all this, the three plaintiffs will receive a total of $6.00, one dollar from each of the two defendants. (It was never about the money.) The taxpayers of Ocala will also have to pay the legal bills for the AHA.

It took several years to get to this point, but the AHA was right all along. A city should never promote a religious event, and when they’re warned about the potential legal problems, they shouldn’t double down on their ignorance.

The taxpayers of Ocala elected some ignorant leaders and they’re going to take a financial hit for it.

(Image via Shutterstock. Large portions of this article were published earlier)

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