The Freedom From Religion Foundation is charging that an Alabama police department's intensely religious behavior is unlawful.
The city of Wetumpka reportedly hosts a "CJ Deputy Summer Program" at the Wetumpka Police Department that includes "Daily Devotionals." The police department also hosts a monthly dinner with local churches called "People Extending Christian Kindness." These dinners take place at the Wetumpka Police Department and involve religious leaders and members coming into the police department to serve food. They are promoted on the official Facebook page, sometimes accompanied by bible verses. These posts often praise God or contain Christian religious messages. One such post reads, in part, "A special thanks goes to God the Father for the opportunity, resources, and for His love. Thank You Lord for giving us all we need to give back to the community we love to protect and serve."
Police officers at the Wetumpka Police Department have also been hosting bible studies for kids while on duty and in uniform. This practice has been shared on the police department's official Facebook page and the city of Wetumpka's official Facebook page.
The police department's direct proselytizing and its endorsement of religion through the official Facebook pages of the city and the department violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by favoring a specific religion over others, FFRF emphasizes.
"The Supreme Court has long recognized that the First Amendment 'mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion,'" FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line writes to Wetumpka City Attorney Regina Edwards. "When the department hosts bible studies, provides devotionals, and hosts dinners with local churches that make explicit reference to their Christian purposes, the department favors Christianity over all other religions and over those with no religion."
There are broader societal implications here, too. These official social posts send the message to all the non-Christians and nonreligious people in Wetumpka that they "are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community," to quote the U.S. Supreme Court. The Wetumpka Department's favoring of Christianity alienates the 30 percent of American adults who are non-Christian, including the 24 percent who identify with no religion at all. It is also a clear violation of the Establishment Clause.
Citizens interact with and rely on law enforcement officers during some of the most urgent and vulnerable times of their lives. These citizens should not be made to feel excluded, or like political outsiders, because the local government they support with their taxes oversteps its power by proselytizing and promoting religious events through official government channels.
FFRF asks that the Wetumpka Police Department staff immediately cease proselytizing while on duty and in uniform. It requests that events sponsored by the city or the police department discontinue including devotionals or other religious elements, and that the department cease official participation in religious events.
"It doesn't behoove law enforcement to step outside the bounds of the Constitution," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "The good folks of Wetumpka can't be expected to obey the law when the police department is breaking the law itself."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 29,000 nonreligious members across the country, including in Alabama. Its purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.