FFRF protests police-sponsored prayer vigil, chaplain program, and religious motto

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging the Ocala (Fla.) Police Department to cancel a “Community Prayer Vigil” scheduled for tonight, Wed., Sept. 24. Police Chief Greg Graham posted a letter on police letterhead to the department’s Facebook page on Sept. 18 exhorting citizens to attend the vigil. Graham called a recent series of shootings in the area “a crisis that . . . requires fervent prayer and your presence to show unity and help in this senseless crime spree that is affecting our community.”

FFRF, the nation’s largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics) based in Madison, Wis., with 21,500 members, representing more than 1,000 members and a chapter in Florida, works as a state/church watchdog.

“Calling upon citizens to pray is coercive and beyond the authority of any government. Citizens should not be made to feel offended, excluded, or like political outsiders because the police department, which they support with their taxes, imposes religious ritual on them,” wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in a letter to the police department today.

Graham told the Ocala Star Banner that the vigil would be “an opportunity to show solidarity in our community, that we are not going to tolerate people who are going to go out and victimize innocent people.” Seidel responded, “It is not necessary to endorse religion to achieve these aims. A secular community gathering could achieve these exact goals without excluding a significant portion of the citizens the OPD is sworn to protect.”

FFRF cited a 2009 scientific study showing that homicide rates are higher in more religious nations, and noted that the most religious states in the United States have the highest rates of societal ills such as poverty, infant mortality, and violent crime. The letter also cited a 2006 study that showed prayer had no effect on those recovering from surgery. “Prayer is the ultimate cop-out, the admission that the prayer-giver is giving up and transferring personal responsibility to an invisible, absent being,” wrote Seidel.

The letter also strongly objected to the official patches, declaring “GOD BE WITH US,” worn by Ocala police officers. The unconstitutional phrase is Ocala’s motto and appears on the city seal. FFRF sent a separate letter to Mayor Kent Guinn protesting the use of this religious phrase as the city motto.

Seidel pointed out that variations of the phrase appear numerous times in the bible and Catholic liturgy, and that Nazi soldiers wore the German version of the motto, Gott mit uns, on their belt buckles.

FFRF further called for the department to end its chaplain program. “Given that chaplains are organizing this unconstitutional prayer vigil, the OPD is already clearly failing to properly limit the chaplains from imposing religion,” wrote Seidel. He also noted that it is discriminatory to provide “free, on-the-job” religious counseling to religious officers or members of the public, while failing to providing secular counseling for those who are nonreligious or nonChristian.

FFRF asks the Ocala Police Department to cancel the vigil “or convert it to an entirely secular event where all OPD citizens are welcome, regardless of their religion or lack thereof,” to replace the religious patches and to discontinue the chaplain program.

The vigil is slated to be held tonight at 6:30 p.m. in Ocala’s Downtown Square.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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