American Atheists — the group the erected the country’s first atheist monument on government property — has sent a letter advising the Montgomery, AL police that their “Operation Good Shepherd” program, which uses public funds to place Evangelical Christian pastors at crime scenes, is unconstitutional. Raw Story spoke with Dave Muscato of American Atheists, who said that the program violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
“Operation Good Shepherd is a taxpayer-funded program that sends Christian pastors to crime scenes in order to preach Christianity to the victims of crimes and the surrounding people,” Muscato explained.
The pastors are all volunteers, but they are trained by on-duty police officers on department time and the program has “incidental administrative costs” that range from transportation to ID badges for the clergy.
“These pastors have access to the crime scenes, which isn’t appropriate for someone who isn’t involved in legal work or crime scene investigation or isn’t a police officer,” Muscato said.
“And this is blatantly unconstitutional,” he said, “having someone there to preach who is provided by the police.”
Muscato said that for public monies to go to this kind of effort aimed at citizens at times when they are in crisis and at their most vulnerable is a violation of U.S. Constitution. Citizens are protected under the First Amendment, which prohibits the establishment of Christianity or any other faith as the national religion as well as under the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law to all Americans.
The letter, addressed to Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange and Police Chief Kevin Murphy, said, in part, “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.”
Calling the practice, “blatantly and facially unconstitutional under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States,” American Atheists asked that “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, said Muscato, the program were to allow Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams or any other faith that was interested in serving the community, as well as a secular alternative, the program would be fair and within the framework of the Fourteenth Amendment. The fact that “Operation Good Shepherd” used taxpayer money to promote religion, though, is always going to be an issue.
“What’s really egregious, though,” he continued, “is that the police in Montgomery are being very explicit about the purpose of this being to preach Christianity.”
Muscato’s voice turned sharp when reacting to Hicks’ remarks. “That’s just…egregiously, obviously a violation of the separation of church and state, combining the religious community and the police department like that.”
The letter is set to arrive in Montgomery on Tuesday. Muscato said that American Atheists anxiously awaits the police department and city’s responses.
David Ferguson is an editor at Raw Story. He was previously writer and radio producer in Athens, Georgia, hosting two shows for Georgia Public Broadcasting and blogging at Firedoglake.com and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book.
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