MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A prominent atheist organization states that it plans to sue an Alabama city that was recently in headlines surrounding the launch of a new program that unites area pastors and police in reaching the hurting in the community.
As previously reported, this past summer, the Montgomery Police Department launched Operation Good Shepherd in response to the city’s high homicide rate, as Montgomery fears being on the path to becoming one of the most violent cities per capita in America. According to WSFA, the outreach program was modeled after the Police and Clergy Working Together (PACT) program in Dayton, Ohio.
“[F]aith leaders attend weekly classes in which police teach them ways they can discourage crime and show them exactly what’s happening in their communities,” the outlet explained.
Pastors are to accompany police at crime scenes, as well counsel and pray with those present, and attend monthly meetings to discuss areas of concern in regard to criminal activity in the city. Police training includes gang awareness and how to spot illegal drug activity.
Nearly 40 area clergy have completed the training, which were all recognized during a recent ceremony at Montgomery City Hall. Police chief Kevin Murphy issued diplomas to the pastors as their names were called.
“They’re going to make a difference, and they’re going to help everyone in their time of need see that change can be made,” Corporal David Hicks told those gathered.
However, once the group American Atheists of Cranford, New Jersey learned of the matter, it sent a letter to city officials demanding that they dissolve the new program.
“[A]ny plan by public officials to engage in a scheme to promote Christianity using public funds and public officials is blatantly and facially unconstitutional under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which states, ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,’” the correspondence asserted.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) also sent a letter to city leaders, advising that residents in the state had complained about the effort. The Alabama chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has requested records surrounding the program before it formulates an opinion.
“If we sue, which we will, it will end up costing the state of Alabama thousands of dollars or hundreds of thousands of dollars,” American Atheists attorney Edwin Kagan told AL.com.
He asserts that the law enforcement program is actually against the law itself.
But Public Safety Director Chis Murphy told the publication that some misunderstand the intent of the program.
“The purpose is crime prevention, not religious recruitment,” he stated.
“We took careful strides when we first organized this to make sure it was broad-based and not just Christian,” Murphy added to the Montgomery Advisor.
He noted that the city also spoke with Jewish and Muslim communities while developing the crime-fighting initiative.
Murphy also says that he discussed the matter with the Montgomery mayor and police chief—along with the city attorney—and that Operation Good Shepherd will move forward. The city plans to draft a response to all concerned parties, but American Atheists has said it would sue if the program is not disbanded.
“This is the sector (the clergy) that raised their hands and said they wanted to help,” Montgomery public safety spokesperson Martha Earnhardt told reporters. “Lots of people have responded and that’s the key to crime prevention.”