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Atheist Group Badgers Florida Police Dept. Over Decision to Hold Awards Event at Christian Seminary

Reformed Theological Seminary
Reformed Theological Seminary | (Photo: Facebook/Reformed Theological Seminary)

One of America's largest secular legal organizations is pressuring a Florida police department to stop holding award ceremonies at a nearby theological seminary.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which advocates for a strict enforcement of separation of church and state, is once again getting involved in the local affairs of a municipality outside of its own community.

As the organization has sued school districts, police departments and other government entities throughout the nation that have embraced prayer and other religious acts, the 24,000-member organization is now calling out the Oviedo Police Department for holding its awards ceremony and career track recognition in March at the Reformed Theological Seminary.

In addition to holding the program at a theological seminary, the program also included an invocation.

"It is a fundamental principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that the government cannot promote, advance or otherwise endorse religion," FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel wrote in a letter to Oviedo Chief of Police Jeffrey Chudnow dated June 16.

"Allowing prayer at an awards ceremony sends the message that the police department not only prefers religion over nonreligion, but also Christianity over other faiths," Seidel continued.

Chudnow replied to FFRF's letter in July, arguing that although the awards ceremony was held at a theological seminary, his department did not violate the Constitution because it did not have any "intention of establishing a religion."

"Our awards ceremony and career track recognition was not held in a church," Chudnow contended. "Yes, the event was held at Reformed Theological Seminary, but in a multipurpose room and not a religious sanctuary."

Chudnow also pointed out that he is Jewish and was not offended by being at a Christian theological seminary or subjected to Christian invocation.

Seidel responded to Chudnow's letter on July 14 and argued that although there was no intent to establish a religion, that fact is "irrelevant."

"The inclusion of an invocation at an official OPD ceremony gives the impression that the OPD — and hence, the government — endorses religion," Seidel wrote. "[T]he fact that you didn't receive any complaints about the invocation, other than ours, is not particularly surprising. … Those offended by the invocation, marginalized by the display of state-sanctioned religion at a secular awards ceremony, would not seek redress from ODP and risk making themselves targets of ridicule and persecution."

Chudnow responded by sending second letter on July 18 which argued that the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Constitution and its amendments is largely "fluid and dynamic" because it depends on who sits on the court.

"This is most evident with rulings regarding the Fourth Amendment over the years and the changing ebbs and flows of the make-up of the court," Chudnow stated.

In a third letter sent out last week to Chudnow, Seidel asserts that officer's comment about the fluidity of the Supreme Court's interpretation of law is "problematic."

"Regardless of the composition of the Supreme Court, the justices have referred time and again to the words of Thomas Jefferson in interpreting the Establishment Clause and will likely continue to do so well into the future," Seidel wrote. "Jefferson's 'wall of separation between church and state' has been repeatedly noted as the central organizing principle presented by the Establishment Clause."

Seidel urged Chudnow to make sure his department doesn't open future awards ceremonies with prayer and at facilities that are of religious nature.

Chudnow told The Christian Post on Tuesday that moving forward, "the selection of a venue for our annual awards ceremony will be made considering the space needed to accommodate the officers and their families as well as some other considerations and will include Reformed Theological Seminary."

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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