A seven-year battle over the legality of a government-led public prayer vigil will soon be coming to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
This saga began in 2014, when 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 after a particularly troubling string of crimes in which children were injured:
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.
There’s something seriously bizarre about a Chief of Police suggesting the best solution to stop crime is prayer, as if the only alternative was 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 funding for the police department, or (thinking long-term) looked for ways to get people out of poverty so some of them didn’t feel the need to resort to crime.
There may have been value to having members of the community unite toward a common cause but promoting prayer (Christian prayers, naturally) was more divisive than anything else. More importantly, this wasn’t some grassroots push for prayer led by citizens. It was a top-down call for Christianity to solve secular problems with uniformed chaplains lending their authority to the event.
The American Humanist Association’s David Niose eventually wrote a letter to the Chief, calling on him to remove the letter from the department’s page and asking for reassurance that the police department wouldn’t be participating in the event. (Individual officers could always go on their own time, but it’s a different story when a government entity itself promotes religion.)
Nothing ever came of that request. The original post is still (!) up on the police department’s Facebook page and they ultimately participated in the prayer vigil.
Shortly afterwards, when a local resident complained about this to Ocala’s Mayor Kent Guinn, the mayor responded by saying the actions were justified because “We open every council meeting with a prayer. And we end the prayer in Jesus name we pray. [O]ur city seal says ‘God be with us’ and we pray that he is and us with him.”
Way to miss the point.
That November, In November of 2014, after the polite warnings were rejected, the AHA filed a lawsuit against the department claiming this was a constitutional violation. They noted the department’s support for the “revivalist” event, where officers “prayed, sang religious songs and delivered Christian sermons.” They cited the Facebook post announcing the event, which was written on official department letterhead and signed by both the police chief and a local Baptist leader.
The case took a number of twists and turns regarding who had legal standing to file the lawsuit, but in 2016, U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Corrigan issued a ruling confirming 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 detail about that ruling: The police chief and Ocala’s attorneys agreed during the oral arguments that the government had no business promoting a prayer vigil. They said what they did simply didn’t fall under that category because this was a “community-sponsored” vigil… which it very clearly wasn’t. The judge didn’t buy their excuse.
The end result was that the plaintiffs received a total of $6.00, one dollar from each of the two defendants, since it was never about the money. The taxpayers of Ocala were also on the hook to pay the legal bills for the AHA.
That should have been the end of the story. But the right-wing American Center for Law and Justice appealed the decision to the Eleventh Circuit Court of appeals. Using phrases like “cancel culture,” they argued that the atheists were trying to “shut down protected First Amendment gatherings.” Specifically, a response brief filed last year said that participating in the prayer vigil was legal because there was no evidence of coercion, there’s no evidence of a lack of neutrality, the plaintiffs lack standing, and the Establishment Clause is on their side… all of which are fairly laughable arguments, largely because it implies a government endorsement of ostensibly Christian prayers is only illegal if people are forced to participate.
By that logic, every police department in the country could hang a giant cross on the front door and put a Ten Commandments display in the lobby, but none of that would count as promotion of Christianity unless someone explicitly says it or requires new employees to adopt the religion.
If we were talking about any other religion besides Christianity, these actions would’ve been stopped years ago, but conservative Christians believe neutrality is persecution, and they just can’t handle anyone complaining about them treating their faith as the default option for everyone in the community.
The ACLJ now says the Eleventh Circuit has now scheduled oral arguments for the case on April 25. Given that this court already has a conservative bent, they may well win the case. At that point, going to the Supreme Court wouldn’t be an option since their obvious pro-religion bias wouldn’t overrule the decision. Which means that because of the right-wing stronghold on our judiciary, it may soon be okay for government agencies to participate in religious worship services while acting like it’s all neutral and not at all an establishment of religion. The Constitution means whatever they want it to mean.