OCALA, Fla. — A prominent humanist group is seeking summary judgment in a lawsuit against a Florida police department for hosting and promoting a community prayer vigil in 2014, which it asserts is an unconstitutional government entanglement with religion.
The American Humanist Association (AHA) had sued the Ocala Police Department in November 2014 two months after it held the vigil, which was meant to combat a wave of crime in the city.
“We are facing a crisis in the City of Ocala and Marion County that requires fervent prayer to show unity and help in this senseless crime spree that is affecting our community,” read a letter posted to the Department website and social media pages, and signed by Police Chief Greg Graham.
“I am urging you all to please support the very important ‘Community Prayer Vigil’ … to be held in our Downtown Square located in the heart of the city,” it said.
AHA then contacted Graham to demand the removal of the letter, but he refused. Mayor Kent Guinn stood by Graham.
“There is nothing in the Constitution to prohibit us from having this vigil,” he allegedly wrote in response to one complaint. “Not only are we not canceling it, we are trying to promote it and have as many people as possible to join us.”
Therefore, the prayer gathering went forward, which generated several hundred attendees. According to AHA, some speakers included officers with the Ocala Police Department, who “preached Judeo-Christian religion to the crowd in a style consistent with revivalist and evangelical religion and participated in religious worship, praising God, calling for God’s assistance, and encouraging verbal participation and responsive chanting from the crowd.”
In November 2014, AHA sued the Department, asserting that its actions “had the effect of favoring and promoting theistic religion, particularly monotheistic religion, over non-theistic religion and beliefs.”
It called for an injunction against government involvement in or promotion of further religious events, punitive monetary damages from the mayor and chief, and a declaratory judgment that the police department’s acts violated the Establishment Clause.
The clause declares that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
The city sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, but last July, U.S. District Court Judge Philip Lammens, nominated to the bench by Barack Obama, rejected the request.
“The First Amendment prevents the government, in its effort to protect religious freedom, from carrying on government sponsored religious activity,” he wrote. “As ‘the quintessential religious practice,’ the state cannot advance prayer activities without the implication that the state is violating the Establishment Clause.”
Now, AHA is requesting summary judgment—that Lammens rule in their favor without the need for a trial.
“The involvement of the police department makes the city’s endorsement of prayer a particularly flagrant violation of the Establishment Clause,” Monica Miller, senior counsel at the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, said in a statement. “The police department initiated the city’s prayer vigil and uniformed police personnel led prayers, which creates a coercive environment that is offensive and hostile to non-Christian citizens.”
As previously reported, throughout America’s early history, a number of the Founding Fathers issued proclamations calling inhabitants to prayer, including in 1798, when President John Adams proclaimed a national day of humiliation, prayer and fasting.
“As the safety and prosperity of nations ultimately and essentially depend on the protection and blessing of Almighty God, and the national acknowledgment of this truth is not only an indispensable duty which the people owe to Him,” he wrote, “…this duty, at all times incumbent, is so especially in seasons of difficulty and of danger, when existing or threatening calamities—the just judgments of God against prevalent iniquity—are a loud call to repentance and reformation.”
President Abraham Lincoln also proclaimed a National Fast Day in 1863.
“[I]t is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord,” his proclamation read.
“[I]nsomuch we know that by His Divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people,” Lincoln said.