'American Atheists' Threatens to Sue Ala. Project to Reduce Spiking Crime Rates By Sending Trained Pastors to Counsel Victims

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(Photo: Reuters/Carlo Allegri)A police crime scene.

The American Atheists organization in Alabama is complaining about one police department's new initiative to curb high crime rates in their town by sending trained pastors to crime scenes to counsel the suffering.

Alabama's Montgomery Police Department launched the "Operation Good Shepherd" initiative this past summer 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 train nearly 40 Christian clergy in the area so they may accompany police to crime scenes to offer counsel to the suffering. They will then attend monthly meetings to discuss how crime can be decreased in certain areas of the city.

The pastors are all volunteers, but the American Atheists organization argued in a recent letter to Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange and Police Chief Kevin Murphy that the initiative is unconstitutional because it only involves evangelical pastors and therefore promotes one particular religion. The letter argues that although the clergy participating in the program are volunteers, the policemen are on-duty when training them for crime scene scenarios. Additionally, the letter argues that "incidental" administrative costs to taxpayers are incurred through ID badges for the pastors and transportation.

The letter claims the organization has "received complaints from a number of residents and taxpayers in Alabama who object strongly to 'Operation Good Shepard' [sic] 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."

The letter goes on to state that the program is "blatantly and facially unconstitutional under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States," adding that if the program is not dismantled the group will pursue legal action. The letter is signed by David Silverman, the president of American Atheists.

The letter was sent to the city on Tuesday, and city officials and the police department have yet to respond to its content. In a previous ceremony at Montgomery's City Hall, Montgomery Police Corporeal David Hicks said the purpose of the program was to reduce crime in the city: "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."