A 14-year veteran police officer from San Juan, Puerto Rico sued his bosses on Friday, alleging that he was reassigned from police work to washing cars and relaying messages when he refused to participate in a compulsory Christian prayer.
The complaint (PDF) alleges that officer Alvin Marrero-Mendez's superior officers often engaged in religious activities during precinct meetings, including an officially sponsored prayer. Specifically, it alleges that officer Mendez was asked to give a prayer before a group of officers and when he refused, he was told to leave formation and stand in front of his peers while a superior officer mocked him for rejecting Christianity.
"When Department supervisors engage in these unconstitutional activities, they subject the officers under their command to unwelcome indoctrination and religious messages, creating a tense and hostile work environment and harming the community as a whole by sending a divisive message of religious favoritism for those who adhere to the supervisors’ preferred faith," the Puerto Rico chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union explained in court documents.
The complaint adds that Mendez is "an open atheist, and as such, does not subscribe to the Christian faith or any other religious doctrine."
"He values his right to adopt no religious beliefs as much as others surely value their right to follow a particular faith," it goes on. "He is deeply offended by and objects to the Defendants' official religious practices because these practices promote beliefs with which he does not agree. Plaintiff further objects to these practices because they are religiously coercive in that they pressure him to participate in prayer and worship."
The filing alleges that former police commander Guillermo Calixto-Rodríguez ordered Mendez to abandon a formation of fellow officers after Mendez voiced opposition to giving a Christian prayer. "As Plaintiff was walking away, Defendant Calixto-Rodríguez shouted that Plaintiff should stop and stand still until the prayer was finished," the complaint adds. "Then, in front of the entire formation, Defendant Guillermo Calixto-Rodríguez shouted that Plaintiff was standing apart from everyone else because 'he doesn’t believe in what we believe.' Plaintiff felt humiliated and turned his back to the formation until the prayer, which was explicitly Christian, ended."
It goes on to say the incident reduced Mendez to tears, and he vowed to raise the issue with a higher authority. When he did, he was allegedly reassigned to washing cars and relaying messages, often times in the dead of night or in the hottest hours of the afternoon. He also claims that his weekly day off has since been "capriciously denied" without any justification.
"Government agencies cannot require employees to take part in prayer in their workplace," William Ramirez, executive director of the ACLU of Puerto Rico, said in an advisory. "To do so runs afoul of one of the great pillars of both the U.S. Constitution and the Puerto Rico Constitution, which mandate separation of church and state."