The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter of complaint and records request March 11 to Birmingham, Ala., Police Chief A.C. Roper objecting to his organizing and endorsing a Christian ministry called Prayer Force United.
FFRF, a state-church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., has about 20,000 members nationwide and about 180 in Alabama, including a chapter, the Alabama Freethought Association. FFRF also addressed Roper's inclusion of Christian prayer at mandatory department staff meetings and events.
Roper, an ordained minster, leads monthly prayer walks in different Birmingham neighborhoods under the auspices of the Prayer Force United ministry. The prayers are supposed to lower crime. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel's letter details Roper's stated belief in the power of prayer and the powerlessness of his police force: "[T]he police are not the answer, never have been, never will be. Jesus said that he's the answer," and "one of the biggest problems [Birmingham is] facing is a lack of godliness."
Seidel explained the law to Roper: "It is unconstitutional for government officials to use their government office and email to advance, promote or endorse one religion over another, or religion over nonreligion. You must keep your religion to yourself when acting in your official capacity as police chief."
Seidel noted that prayer as a crime-fighting technique is ineffectual: "The walks themselves may lower crime simply by having crowds on the streets escorted by police cars with flashing lights, but that is not because of the power of prayer ‚ÄĒ it is the power of people. Prayer cannot stop violence. Scientific studies show that societies with less prayer have less violence."
FFRF called on the chief to stop forcing prayer on city employees: "Federal courts have found that prayers at government employee meetings constitute illegal government endorsement of religion."
FFRF has created a video with clips from Ropers' sermons and Prayer Force United videos with commentary on their legality. "There was so much video footage, we thought citizens might like to see how the police are abusing their office 'in Jesus' name,' " said Seidel, who put the video together. "It's an opportunity to explain the law and provide compelling examples of exactly how the Constitution is being violated."
Prayer Force videos show Roper appearing while using his title and office to endorse the ministry and "claiming the city of Birmingham for God." Roper also explains that Prayer Force is part of the police department: [I]t's a prayer ministry, it's an intercessory ministry, that, in addition to our officers working every day to make the streets of Birmingham safe, we have a prayer force that's interceding."
FFRF also filed an open records request asking for all records relating to the department's official endorsement of the ministry.