On April 28th, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in Rojas, et al. v. City of Ocala, Fl, an important separation of church and state case brought by the American Humanist Association (AHA) that requires all our attention.
In 2014, the Ocala City Police Department (OPD) planned and facilitated an hour-long, Christian-revival-style prayer vigil for hundreds of citizens downtown. Since the US Constitution contains the Establishment Clause (the section of the First Amendment that ensures our right to freedom from and of religion), you might already recognize the problem with a taxpayer-funded state service endorsing a religion and promoting a prayer vigil. There’s so much more wrong with this story.
To start, the prayer vigil in question was almost completely planned by OPD personnel during their work hours and took place at police headquarters. A flier, urging the public to join “us” in “fervent prayer,” was written on OPD letterhead, signed by the Chief of Police, and posted to the official OPD Facebook page. There’s no denying that the OPD violated the Establishment Clause by organizing, promoting, and conducting this prayer vigil.
There was no effort to include all of the citizens that the OPD is supposed to serve and protect, or to represent their varying beliefs. Not only was this a specifically Christian event, but the OPD chose to hold it on a high Jewish holiday, ignoring many local Jewish community members. OPD emailed responses to supportive citizens, “reaffirming the Mayor and OPD’s commitment to battling atheists”. The Ocala Police Department has made it clear that this was not meant to be an inclusive event, and therefore, the government-sponsored event fundamentally endorsed Christianity.
“[T]onight Lord that love can conquer anything,” said a uniformed OPD chaplain during the prayer vigil. “It can conquer evil, it can conquer your enemies… your angels are on assignment [from] the kingdom of God. And your kingdom has come. And your kingdom is ruling even now.”
In November 2014, the AHA, led by Legal Director and Senior Counsel Monica Miller, filed a case against the City of Ocala on behalf of four concerned Marion County residents in the U.S. District Court of Florida. The case challenged the constitutionality of the vigil, which included prayer, religious songs, and Christian sermons.
“The AHA exists to ensure that the United States lives up to its potential as a pluralistic nation, where church and state are held separate,” says Miller. “We will not stand for such egregious church-state violations and will always try to protect true religious freedom for all.”
In May 2018, the AHA won its lawsuit. Judge Timothy J. Corrigan, appointed during the Bush Administration, ruled in AHA’s favor, proclaiming that Ocala’s Prayer Vigil was “inconsistent both with the purposes of the Establishment Clause and with the Establishment Clause itself.”
In June 2018, Ocala officials represented by former Trump lawyers, Jay and Jordan Sekulow, filed a notice of appeal.
Despite ample evidence to the contrary, the City of Ocala claims that the prayer vigil was a private event that the OPD had nothing to do with. They argue that the purpose of the police prayer vigil was a tactic to pressure witnesses in an open shooting investigation to come forward, not to promote prayer.
Miller asserts that these claims are deeply concerning. “Effectively, the OPD is stating that they chose to willfully violate the Constitution in an effort to employ tactics which are not a part of policing norms.”
It’s not hard to see how the OPD and the City of Ocala blatantly violated the Establishment Clause and excluded people that they swore to protect. Representatives of the City of Ocala have made it clear that, if the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals does not judge in their favor, they will try to bring this case to the Supreme Court.
We need effective policies on the local and state level that affirm a pluralistic and inclusive democracy. We must let our public servants know that we, and other religious minorities, will not be treated as second-class citizens and excluded from government-sponsored events. The events in Ocala, Florida are a part of the concerning trend to blur and ignore one of the very things that make the United States great: freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.