Atheists Put an End to Police Prayer Vigils, but Fail to Stop 'Pastors on Patrol'

Middle School student Isabella Merle prays during a vigil for Marine Lance Cpl. Squire K.
Middle School student Isabella Merle prays during a vigil for Marine Lance Cpl. Squire K. | (Photo: Reuters/Chris Aluka Berry)

A police department in Louisiana will no longer host or promote citywide monthly prayer vigils following a complaint from one of the nation's leading atheist groups.

The Shreveport Police Department, which is led by Baptist pastor and Police Chief Alan Crump, has agreed to no longer organize prayer gatherings after it received a letter from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The letter was sent in late August and objected to the fact that the police department "organizes and promotes prayer vigils" on behalf of about 20 pastors who are involved in the department's "Pastors on Patrol" chaplaincy program, according to KTBS.

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According to a screenshot of a department Facebook post promoting the event, the monthly prayer vigil was designed to "unite community, police and community leaders in prayer" for the city.

FFRF's letter not only called for an end to the prayer vigils but also for an end to the department's chaplaincy program.

The secular legal organization, which advocates for a strict separation of church and state, argues that the department's participation in these events violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution because it gives off an "appearance of bias" toward citizens of faith and "hostility" toward citizens of no faith.

According to The Shreveport Times, City Attorney William Bradford confirmed last week that the department will no longer host prayer vigils. However, officers are still welcome to attend prayer vigils that have been planned by community members.

"It's a matter of best practice," Bradford told The Shreveport Times. "We have to be inclusive of all of our citizens and representative of all of them. We want to make sure we're implementing practices that do not alienate certain groups of people."

Despite FFRF's plea, the city does not have a plan to halt the chaplain program.

According to the police department's website, pastors affiliated with the chaplain program are from a variety of religious denominations and ride along with police officers while on patrol.

"While on patrol, they provide comfort and counsel to the officers and the citizens they come in contact with," the website explains. "In many cases, their presence can [defuse] hostile situations, especially if the chaplains are working an area near their church home. These chaplains are well-known and respected in their neighborhoods and serve as liaisons between the police and citizens."

FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover argued in the Aug. 30 letter that such a chaplain program in which private chaplains are provided for police officers is not needed because Shreveport police officers "have no government-imposed burdens on religious exercise."

"In our experience, government entities rarely exert the appropriate oversight on chaplaincy, allowing chaplains to use the workplace as their church," the letter argues.

Although the city has not done away with the chaplain program, Grover told The Shreveport Times that FFRF is pleased with what has been reported about the department's changes.

"If all of those actions are indeed true, then we are happy with those steps," Grover was quoted as saying. "For now, we are happy with what the city has done."

FFRF, which has over 32,000 members across the nation, regularly pressures local government entities and school districts to halt any perceived form of entanglement with religion.

The atheist legal group has seen successes recently in states like Georgia, where a school district was pressured into barring a local pastor from praying with a high school football team.

In September, a school district in Alabama banned prayer from being conducted over a loudspeaker before the start of high school football games.

In April, an Illinois public school district barred administrators and teachers from sending out emails to parents inviting them to participate in the nationwide annual "See You at the Pole" prayer event.

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith Follow Samuel Smith on Facebook: SamuelSmithCP

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