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.
American Atheists, Inc.