FFRF boos AL police chief’s religious video

1HollywoodAL

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is panning an Alabama police department’s recent religious music video.

The Hollywood Police Department participated in an internet “Lip Sync Challenge” and posted a video to its Facebook page of Department Chief Jason Hepler lip-syncing in uniform to the Christian country song “I Can Only Imagine.” The video included explicit endorsements of Christianity. For instance, the police chief takes a knee several times and raises his hands in apparent praise to Jesus while lip syncing to the line, “Will I stand in your presence  / Or to my knees will I fall / Will I sing hallelujah / Will I be able to speak at all.” The chief also bows his head in prayer while sitting at his department desk and uses other body language to express his personal religious connection to the song. 

"I'm trying to display my love for Christ, you know, and everything he's done for me because he's always walked with me through the hardest parts of my life," Hepler said to local news media about his choice of a Christian song for the competition. 

Such a video violates the U.S. Constitution, FFRF informs Hepler. 

“Citizens interact with and rely on law enforcement officers during some of the most urgent and vulnerable times of their lives,”  FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover writes to Hepler.  “As police chief for the town of Hollywood, you serve a diverse population that consists of not only Christians, but also minority religious and nonreligious citizens.”

Law enforcement must be impartial and avoid any appearance of bias toward some citizens or hostility toward others. Religious endorsements made by a department send a message that excludes the 24 percent of American adults who identify as nonreligious, including 38 percent of Millennials and younger Americans. The Hollywood Police Department is needlessly alienating non-Christian and nonreligious citizens in its city, turning them into political outsiders in their own community.  

Government employees can worship, pray, or read any religious text they wish when acting in their personal capacities. But they are not permitted to provide prestige to their personal religion through the machinery of a government office. The police department belongs to “We the people,” not the department’s temporary occupants, FFRF emphasizes. 

Our Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which protects all Americans’ religious freedom by ensuring the continued separation of religion and government, dictates that the government cannot in any way endorse religion. The First Amendment prohibits even the appearance of religious endorsement by government officials. Promoting one specific set of religious beliefs in an official department video violates the department’s obligation under the Constitution.

“If the Hollywood Police Department wants to make its big film debut, they must keep religion out of it,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “This is the wrong kind of splash to be creating. Using a contest to promoting Christianity is inappropriate.”

“It would be entirely possible, of course, for the department to participate in the Lip Sync Challenge without ostracizing a significant portion of Hollywood’s citizens,” notes Grover. “Sticking to secular messages is inclusive of everyone and honors our Constitution.” 

FFRF is asking the Hollywood Police Department to refrain from promoting religion on social media and take down its video tribute to the personal religious beliefs of its chief.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nationwide nonprofit organization with more than 32,000 members throughout the country, including over 200 in Alabama. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters related to nontheism.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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FFRF is a member of the Secular Coalition for America

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