Atheists Threaten Separation of Church & State Lawsuit Against Montgomery, Alabama

Taxpayer-funded “Operation Good Shepherd” Sends Pastors to Crime Scenes to Preach Christianity

Cranford, NJ—American Atheists has dispatched a letter (see below) to the Hon. Todd Strange, Mayor of Montgomery, Alabama, and to Montgomery Police Chief Kevin Murphy alleging that the city’s “Operation Good Shepherd” is unconstitutional, demanding the program cease immediately. The letter arrives on Tuesday.

The program uses volunteer Christian pastors trained by on-duty police officers to minister at crime scenes. The officers are paid their regular, taxpayer-funded wages during training, and the program additionally incurs administrative expenses to taxpayers, for example ID cards that give pastors access to crime scenes. On preacher Billy Irwin’s Christian radio program, according to The Atlantic, Corporal David Hicks described “Operation Good Shepherd” by saying “What we want to do is combine the religious community and the Montgomery Police Department and we want to unite those as one.”

“This program is an explicit violation of the Constitutional requirement of separation of religion and government,” said American Atheists President David Silverman. “The police department chaplain—whoever heard of an official police chaplain?—has openly said that it is his intent to take ‘evangelistic advantage’ of people in times of crisis and to preach Christianity to them.”

The program has trained 37 volunteer pastors so far who are on call to evangelize at crime scenes. Another Constitutional problem with the program is that it only trains Christian pastors. In order to be constitutional, alleges American Atheists, the program would have to provide equal treatment: Jewish rabbis, Muslim imams, atheist humanist chaplains, and any and every other religious or nonreligious group must be provided the same opportunities and the same privileges.

“Even without paying the ministers, using ministers as a formal part of the police department— as an outreach ministry — I think violates the Establishment Clause,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the School of Law at University of California in Irvine, as quoted in The Atlantic. “The government cannot take actions that appear to endorse religion. Using ministers in this way does exactly that.”

American Atheists is a national nonprofit with members in every state, including Alabama, that advocates for separation of church and state.

American Atheists’ 40th National Convention will feature such speakers such as NFL star Chris Kluwe, Survivor®: Philippines grand prizewinner Denise Stapley, Grammy-winning Spin Doctors bass player Mark White, Reverend Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, Maryam Namazie of the Council of Ex-Muslims, popular bloggers PZ Myers and Greta Christina, and American Atheists President David Silverman. The convention will also feature a costume party, live music, stand-up comedy, an art show and silent auction, national and local exhibitors, and childcare options for attending families. The convention takes place the the weekend of April 17-20, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

DISPATCHED LETTER FOLLOWS:

October 7, 2013

Hon. Todd Strange
Mayor, City of Montgomery Alabama
Room 206, City Hall
103 North Perry Street
Montgomery, Alabama 36104

Chief Kevin Murphy
Chief of Police
320 N. Ripley St.
Montgomery, AL 36104

In re: Notice of Constitutional Violation.

Dear Mayor Strange and Chief Murphy,

I am the President of American Atheists, Inc., and I write in a sincere attempt to avoid litigation directed against you and against the state of Alabama.

American Atheists is a nationwide organization, with Headquarters in New Jersey, whose mission is to protect the rights of atheists and others who do not have a belief in any god or gods.  We have members and groups throughout the United States, including Alabama.

Our organization has received complaints from a number of residents and taxpayers in Alabama who object strongly to “Operation Good Shepard” whereby public funds and public employees are to be used to promote the Christian religion in an attempt to reduce crime in the State of Alabama.

As salutatory as the ends sought may be, any 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…”

On behalf of the Alabama members of our organization, I respectfully request that this and any other attempts to further the Christian religion, or any other religion, by state actors be terminated immediately.

If this is not done forthwith, we have powerful remedies available.  These include the possible filing of a Federal lawsuit under 42 USC 1983, et seq., alleging that you, together with others, have conspired to break the law and to violate the U.S. Constitution.  If we are forced to file a lawsuit, in addition to our First Amendment claims, we would allege that atheists, and other non-believers, are being denied their Constitutional rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to “the equal protection of the laws,” in that only the Christian religion is offered as a cure for crime in your state.  The ethical teachings of other religions and of atheist thinkers will be ignored.

We respectfully request and demand that either Christian evangelism by state actors cease, or, alternatively, that atheists be permitted to participate in programs dedicated to helping stop crime on the same basis granted to religion.

It is our sincere desire to avoid costly litigation that you will almost certainly lose, in that the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the type of conduct of which we write is unlawful.  We respectfully ask that you not cause your state to incur the rather large monetary loss that will result from court ordered payment of damages and attorney fees.

We will withhold further action for ten days from the date of this letter.  Thank you for your attention to this request.

Sincerely,

David Silverman
President
American Atheists, Inc.

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  • James

    please keep us updated on how they respond! This is the kind of changed society needs

  • Stan Linskiy

    For some reason I think they will not cease in response to the letter alone

  • Blond Giraffe

    Separation of church and state!!!!!!!

  • Blond Giraffe

    Atheists need to run this country, because the religious fanatics are taking us down, it’s embarrassing, other mostly Atheists cultures/countries look at us as such ignorant fools!

    • Glenn S.

      AND… most other atheist countries are better, period.

    • Nathan Hunter

      You people crack me up. But I have to ask you Blondy, I’ve never heard of an “atheist country”. Can you enlighten us and tell us where that country might be? And is the ENTIRE country non believers or just a percentage, and what is the percentage? Oh, and how do you know that they “look at us as fools” ? Do you know someone in one of these countries that has told you that? And finally this. You obviously have a very strong UN BELIEF in God. If you were to try to convince me that your philosophy is correct, and God does not exist, how would you do that? How can you PROVE to me, that God doesn’t exist? Can’t do it can ya, you silly little girl. LOL

      • Gerry

        How do you prove that something that doesn’t exist, really doesn’t exist? Okay, then prove that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. Prove the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist. Prove that Mighty Zeus, King of the Gods, doesn’t exist. Prove that Krishna doesn’t exist.

        You want people to believe? Prove that your God DOES exist.

  • Josh

    Do you imagine for Montgomery, which happens to be the capitol of Alabama, the Mayor and Chief of Police would enact this type of operation without considering this type of negative reaction?
    On another note, it seems Christians have a higher sense of doing what is right. If atheists have to follow the lead of Christians, remove them from their own operation, and then replace them to take the spotlight for media, that doesn’t say much for you as an organization.
    This is just another example of how the American Atheists aren’t just without religion. That doesn’t seem to be enough for you all. The eradication of Christianity seems to be a more appropriate description for atheists today.
    You’re almost as bad as those Westboro Baptist nutjobs.

    • AriH

      Separation of Church and State. It’s a simple rule that needs to be followed. We don’t create the problems; we just file the lawsuits to enforce the rules and protect people. Ministers arriving to preach when people are vulnerable and grasping at straws for answers is neither moral, nor legal when coordinated through a government agency.

    • GC

      “Higher sense of doing what is right”??? Tell that to sexual abuse victims scarred for life by priests, or to the dying people who suffered without painkillers or proper medical care in Mother Teresa’s hospices, or to the elderly who handed over their life savings to charismatic preachers. Time and time again, Christian leaders have shown that they can be FAR LESS moral than nonreligious people.
      Also, consider this: what’s more moral, doing “the right thing” because your god says so, or because you hope for heaven (and avoiding hell) in a hypothetical afterlife, or doing the right thing because you have empathy for your fellow human beings?

    • Gerry

      Any Christian in America can still believe. Any Christian in America can still declare publicly, on their own, how and what they believe. Any Christian in America can still attend church. Any Christian in America can still freely practice their beliefs. So how is this trying to eradicate Christianity

      All that we’re doing is saying we don’t want the government at any level, promoting one particular religious belief.

  • Jessica

    I don’t see a problem with this at all. Our homicide rate is up to 40 in a year and its not even over yet. WE have 2 more months to finish this year. They are trying to do something about it. If you have a solution then give it but trying to stop it because YOU don’t believe in GOD is kind of crazy. I know everyone has rights but so do Christians. God is bigger than all of this. If it is his will nothing you can do will stop it. Thank you and be blessed!

    • SpaceAtheist

      Jessica – Wake up. They are NOT doing anything at all to stop homicides, nor is that their goal. The goal is to try to convert people to their religion. If I come to you after your home has just burned down to talk about evolution and science, does that mean I am trying to prevent fires? Look just because YOU don’t believe in SCIENCE, is no reason why I should not be able to bother you. In fact, by your own reasoning, you would be crazy if you didn’t want me preaching about science while you are in the midst of a crisis – or worse, mourning the loss of a loved one. I guess murder is god’s will, since you can do nothing to stop it. The religious are so completely deluded by their own BS it’s mind-boggling.

    • Melody

      Jessica, You can’t convince anyone of God on a message board. But you can continue to demonstrate Christ’s love in your life. It’s what people see, now what we say. To comfort others in their time of need is what we are called to do and if tax dollars are taken away for this humane act of kindness, it would seem that as always the neighboring community of Christians will step up to the plate. You are right, God is bigger than all of us and Christ did say on the cross “they know not what they do”. To our eyes, a simple program that isn’t costing millions of dollars seems like such an minor thing when people are being comforted and assisted (the preaching statements are false) however, atheists seems to be offended just by the mere mention of the name “God, Christ, etc.” So, I would imagine a program in which they will not find a substitute for is making them cringe with spite and anger. It’s unfortunate but it’s so true. The hate only proves what we know to be true

      • Gerry

        The problem is that it’s ONLY Christianity. It isn’t Islam. It isn’t Judaism. It isn’t even secularism. And the minister said that this is a chance to share the Gospel.

        You really want to insult people’s intelligence by saying that “atheists seems to be offended just by the mere mention of the name “God,
        Christ, etc.” So, I would imagine a program in which they will not find
        a substitute for is making them cringe with spite and anger.”

        You want to believe? Great. If the folks who are hurting want to seek out Christians for comfort and help, fine. We don’t have a problem. The problem is that this group is trying to use people’s pain to sell their ideas.

        If that’s what Christianity stands for, I’d rather pass on it, thank you.

  • Ben JaMan

    Thank you Thank you Dave and AA! No pussyfooting around with some vague letter to cease. It’s stop or we’ll sue! Hell yeah!

  • Joseph Sayles

    There should be a mass protest against such an unconstitutional law!

  • dark matters

    Morality is not a privilege of christians or any other religion, it’s an inherent human trait that most of us use. What a waste of govt. $ having some religious person on the crime scene. The world will be a better place once religion is shown to be what it really is, some stuperstition.
    Thank you Dave!

  • Aral Gamelon

    This is just so typical of the ridiculous lengths that religious fanatics will go to to try and convert people to their way of thinking. Taking “evangelistic advantage” I find that abhorrent, just be honest and say that you’re taking advantage of people under duress.
    Thankfully this is an overplayed hand that will surely be remedied in a swift manner.

    • Melody

      Comforting a family after a loved one has died is taking advantage? That is what I would call twisting the facts to suit your needs. Go ahead and take the tax dollars, Christians will step up to the plate as we already do with thousands of charities worldwide and assist those that are grieving. Now why don’t you go focus on all that government waste since you are so concerned about tax dollars (what a joke)

      • Lthomas320

        “Evangelistic advantage” is about much more than comforting a family. It’s about manipulating vulnerable people. Elsewhere in this thread Susan Humphreys offers an excellent alternative.

        • Melody

          To you it would be about taking advantage of someone. Most people tend to think that everyone else is like themselves.. That’s unfortunate

          • Aral Gamelon

            Do you know what evangelize means Melody? It would seem you do not. Here let me help you;
            Evangelize- verb- to convert or seek to convert (someone) to Christianity.

            Performing this act upon someone who is in a state of mental weakness or physical duress is awful.

            Aside from that having a state support it publicly and financially is unconstitutional.

          • Melody

            To comfort someone in their time of loss is not evangelizing, it’s a compassionate thing to do. Performing what act exactly? Being a human being and giving care to another? I’m gonna take a leap here and assume you have never received any type of emotional assistance from another person in any shape or form and thus think that no one else desire or needs it because I can’t quite possibly fathom that you are that lacking in just basic compassion.

          • Aral Gamelon

            I’m going to assume your reading level is exceptionally low and I quote;

            “The police department chaplain—whoever heard of an official police chaplain?—has openly said that it is his intent to take ‘evangelistic advantage’ of people in times of crisis and to preach Christianity to them.”

            Now, do you want to keep twisting facts to suit your need or are you going to acknowledge that they seek to convert people? If you can’t admit that their intent is to proselytize then you’re illiterate, a liar or a blind sheep.

          • Melody

            Apparently you don’t have reading comprehension…“This program is an explicit violation of the Constitutional requirement of separation of religion and government,” said American Atheists President David Silverman. “The police department chaplain—whoever heard of an official police chaplain?—has openly said that it is his intent to take ‘evangelistic advantage’ of people in times of crisis and to preach Christianity to them.”
            No where do you see him being quoted, it’s heresay in this article by American Atheists President David Silverman. Geez, does anyone even know what journalism means anymore? It’s called facts, not heresay ..That isn’t twisting facts, you are seeing something that isn’t there. but hey keep putting me down to make yourself appear much smarter than I, maybe it’s helping your self esteem… by the way, you were quoting something said by a leaning contributor to this article, not sure you are going to get an unbiased view of the situation, but that’s your choice.

          • Aral Gamelon

            It goes without saying that one needs to do research on articles from leaning sites, I hate to tell you dear that I use several news sites, here is a quote from the department chaplain cited from The Atlantic via The Raw Story;
            “Anytime you find a group of people whose lives have been adversely affected – it could be a major fire in an apartment complex, it could be trouble in a given community, it can be a storm or a disaster – this gives us an opportunity to meet people and show them the kind of love and compassion that all human beings need,” said E. Baxter Morris, the MPD’s official chaplain. “There is an evangelistic advantage. That is, that once I float to your comfort zone, and we become one in our crisis, I determine what your spiritual needs may or may not be, and I may be able to share with you a word from Christ.”

            So what was that you were saying about facts and hearsay?

            It’s unconstitutional and wrong and you’re a sheeple moron. Any questions?

          • Melody

            Merry Christmas to you darlin’.. Hope yours is full of love, laughter and happiness.

      • Gerry

        We aren’t complaining about Christians stepping up to “(comfort) a family after a loved one has died….” All that we’re saying is that this is a sly attempt to convert people who are emotionally vulnerable.

        Let those Christians keep stepping up at their own expense.

    • Nathan Hunter

      Religious fanatic? What does that make you, a NON religious fanatic?? You people should be in the funny pages.

      • Aral Gamelon

        How droll. No, fanaticism entails singleminded zealotry to a cause, I support many causes. In this particular instance I am backing secularism to protect people from state-backed religious evangelists who would seek to twist a situation for their own agenda.
        Funny papers indeed.

  • Susan Humphreys

    Some both religious and Atheist here don’t seem to grasp the difference between “comforting” and “preaching”. The police department would be better served IF it provided “grief counselors” or “crisis counselors” NOT pastors. Mental health professionals can be trained to provide “comfort and help in times of crises” that fit the needs of the individual, religious oriented IF the one in need desires or non religious oriented for others. Helping a victim and being their temporary advocate can relieve policemen of that duty so they can fully investigate the crime and see that victims are cared for until family or friends or their own pastor arrive.

    • Gerry

      There’s actually a sly and subtle con job at work with this plan. Take people who are in severe emotional distress, who are extremely vulnerable, and slide a particular religious belief in while they can’t defend against it.

      This isn’t “Christian” love. It’s religious prostitution.

  • Fred Park

    I understand that the officers giving legal training to the volunteers cost money up frount, but,do you folks have a trained group of people who will give of their time at no cost to help the people in need?

    If so, suggest a different way to do the job, don’t just tare down those who are willing to help.

    HELP THE PEOPLE INSTEAD OF THE CROOKS.

    • Gerry

      Fine. Let the ministers pay for their own training at secular schools the way any counselor does. We’re not trying to “tare (sic) down those who are willing to help.” We’re simply saying don’t use the government to pay for religious proselytization.

  • El Charrito

    Outrageously stupid. Even for Alabamastan. Hey, you know what criminals really need? If you guessed treatment, education, or rehabilitation, you guessed wrong! They need GAWD and lots of it. Ya’ll need to stop doin drugs, beatin your wives, and shootin each other mmmmmkkkkaaaaay? Pray hard enough to heaven pa, and you’ll be able to stop mmmkkay?

  • closet atheist

    This particular case got me riled up enough to make a donation. Thank you, AA, for all that you do to advance the cause. I hope that, in my lifetime, I witness a similar shift in cultural awareness of atheism that has happened with the gay community.

  • A.A.

    Alabama has committed so many atrocities concerning misrepresenting minorities and it is of no shock to me that they misrepresent and discriminate against the last mistreated minority.

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