American Atheists stepping in with Montgomery, AL police department.

A week and a half ago, Hemant did a write up about how the police department is Montgomery, AL is sending Christian ministers to evangelize to people at crime scenes.  This is, of course, to fight crime – not to spread Christianity.  Except there are oodles of Christians in American prisons, so one can only wonder how that would work.

Even if it did work (which it wouldn’t) it’s unquestionably, no grey area, illegal, and American Atheists is all over it:

“This program is an explicit violation of the Constitutional requirement of separation of religion and government,” said American Atheists President David Silverman. “The police department chaplain—whoever heard of an official police chaplain?—has openly said that it is his intent to take ‘evangelistic advantage’ of people in times of crisis and to preach Christianity to them.”

The program has trained 37 volunteer pastors so far who are on call to evangelize at crime scenes. Another Constitutional problem with the program is that it only trains Christian pastors. In order to be constitutional, alleges American Atheists, the program would have to provide equal treatment: Jewish rabbis, Muslim imams, atheist humanist chaplains, and any and every other religious or nonreligious group must be provided the same opportunities and the same privileges.

“Even without paying the ministers, using ministers as a formal part of the police department— as an outreach ministry — I think violates the Establishment Clause,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the School of Law at University of California in Irvine, as quoted in The Atlantic. “The government cannot take actions that appear to endorse religion. Using ministers in this way does exactly that.”

They’ve sent a letter to the police department explaining how the law is being broken.  I read it.  It’s the kind of letter you get to send when you’re holding all the legal cards.  It opens with:

I am the President of American Atheists, Inc., and I write in a sincere attempt to avoid litigation directed against you and against the state of Alabama.

It essentially says “We’re your friends here, which is why we’re being nice and giving you a warning first” and finishes by strongly implying:

If the Montgomery police department has even remotely competent legal advisers (which I hope they do…because they’re a police department, but then how did this mess even come to fruition in the first place?), then the MPD will know American Atheists could follow up with the legal (and economically destructive) equivalent of nuclear warfare.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • ReadsInTrees

    I’ve heard of an official police chaplain, of sorts. Here in Maine, the Maine Warden Service (who are like cops for the outdoors) have an official Chaplain, Kate Braestrup. Because the warden’s handle a lot of search and rescue situations, or boating/ATV accidents, they’re often involved in tragedies, so the Chaplain is primarily there to offer spiritual guidance to families if desired. She also says a prayer during academy graduations or warden funerals. I’ve heard a few….they’re non-denominational, though possibly loosely Christian (“Dear Lord” or “God” but not “In the name of Jesus Christ”). I think this might TECHnically be a violation of church and state, but I’ve never heard that she proselytizes or that she won’t offer spiritual guidance to people of other faiths or non-faiths. She’s a UU minister, so I imagine she can counsel folks of all beliefs or lack thereof. As a firm atheist always on the lookout for infractions…I really can’t find fault with Kate’s position. I’ve never spoken with her directly, but I’ve seen her at several events (and the latest episode of North Woods Law) and I don’t feel that she is overtly representing one particular religion. I also feel that if my husband were to be killed, I would feel OK receiving counsel from her without feeling uncomfortable for being an atheist.

    • Jasper

      I think this might TECHnically be a violation of church and state, but I’ve never heard that she proselytizes or that she won’t offer spiritual guidance to people of other faiths or non-faiths.

      While proselytism is definitely illegal… not proselytizing doesn’t make it legal. The government cannot show or endorse any kind of preference at all. Even showing preference for monotheism over polytheism is in violation. Where are the polytheistic, pantheistic or atheistic equivalents? Let me know when the warden service has an equivalent for every religious/theistic variation conceivable.

      The government is not in the business of even providing “spiritual guidance” or “spiritual aid if needed”. That’s what church is for.

  • Charles Raymond Miller

    Not only is this program one of the most egregious violations of the Establishment Clause in over 50 years, it is a complete and utter failure. Since starting the program Montgomery ha seen it’s biggest spike in homicides since 1977.

    Chuck Miller Regional Director Alabama.

  • Compuholic

    If the police department really wanted to provide “spiritual help” (whatever that actually means) they would send a psychologist or some professional with a similar background to crime scenes. But it is obvious that this was not their intent. They wanted to specifically prey on emotionally weak people.