(Photo: Reuters/Carlo Allegri)
A major atheist organization has announced its plans to go through with a lawsuit against a city in Alabama should its police department continue their "Operation Good Shepherd" program that involves pastors accompanying police to crime scenes to offer guidance to victims.
American Atheists announced this week that in the next few days it will be filing a lawsuit against the city of Montgomery and its police department for their program, unless the police department gives in to the organization's demands to disband the community outreach program.
The atheists' attorneys threatened to push forward with the lawsuit, indicating that they hoped the cost of defending the lawsuit for the state would be too great and would force them to back down.
"If we sue, which we will, it will end up costing the state of Alabama thousands of dollars or hundreds of thousands of dollars," Edwin Kagin, attorney to American Atheists, told al.com. In a letter sent to the Montgomery Police Department earlier in October, the American Atheists gave the department a deadline of October 22 to disband their outreach program.
The city has also received letters from the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union regarding Operation Good Shepherd. Montgomery Department of Public Safety Spokeswoman Martha Earnhardt told al.com on Monday that the city is currently in the process of responding to all the letters sent by the atheist organizations.
Earlier this year, Alabama's Montgomery Police Department launched a community outreach program, known as Operation Good Shepherd, in an attempt to reduce the climbing homicide rate that threatens to make the city one of the most violent places in the U.S. per capita. The purpose of the initiative is to have trained chaplains accompany police to crime scenes to offer counseling to the suffering.
In its letter to Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange and Police Chief Kevin Murphy, American Atheists argued that the initiative was unconstitutional because although the clergy members participated as volunteers, there are still "incidental" administrative costs for the chaplains coming out of taxpayers' pockets, such as transportation and ID badge expenses, and therefore the program violates the separation of church and state found in the U.S. Constitution.
The letter argues the initiative uses "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."
Those participating in the program have argued that its purpose is not to promote Christianity, but rather to create a more unified and peaceful community in an attempt to reduce the city's high crime rate. "They're going to make a difference, and they're going to help everyone in their time of need see that change can be made," Police Corporeal David Hicks previously said of the program.