In the City of Ocala, Florida, we are currently in a legal battle at the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals over a flawed federal district ruling declaring that government officials can no longer encourage citizens to pray amid a difficult time in their community and volunteer chaplains can no longer lead members of their community in prayer. The battle for religious liberty is at the core of the ACLJ’s mission, and we have been defending our first freedom for decades.
ACLJ Senior Counsel Abigail Southerland joined Sekulow to discuss the facts of the case:
There was a crime spree in the community that resulted in injury to several children. And they actually knew that the eyewitnesses resided in the faith community. So, that’s where Chief Graham, who regularly practices community policing, met with the NAACP and they agreed what Chief Graham should do is sit down and speak with faith community leaders, which he then did. And out of that meeting came the idea of a prayer vigil. At that point, Chief Graham and the police department stepped away and allowed the community leaders to go ahead and plan, promote, and fund the event.
At the prayer vigil, there was a police presence as there always is in a public gathering at this town square. And volunteer chaplains for the police department attended the vigil and helped lead the vigil. Now, they are volunteer chaplains – which the plaintiffs indicated and testified unanimously that they understood that they were not OPD [Ocala Police Department] individuals and or paid employees. There was no confusion there on the part of the atheists.
The issue arose when the Police Chief, who was not planning or running the vigil, simply posted a letter encouraging unity and prayer at the attendance of the vigil. Abby explained:
He did that for numerous events. This wasn’t the only event that he would post a notice of and encourage citizens to attend. The witness testimony is unanimous that there was no government funding. The organizers of the event – all private citizens – testified over and over again that they were responsible for planning, promoting, and funding the event. Chief Graham’s communication to citizens who reached out to him to inquire about the event is consistent with that. He reiterated that this was not an Ocala Police Department event and not a city event. That it was planned and promoted by private citizens within the community.
Atheists discovered the letter and were offended by the event, demanding the prayer vigil to be canceled. In fact, they actually chose to attend the event with the express purpose of subjecting themselves to it so that they could be offended. It’s that ridiculous.
Ultimately, City officials explained they could not cancel a privately organized event, and the atheists sued the City for allegedly promoting this event in the first place. A federal district court agreed with the atheists and found the prayer vigil to be unconstitutional.
However, as we explain in our opening brief on appeal, America has a long-time tradition of calling for prayer. The Supreme Court has agreed, repeatedly allowing government involvement in association with prayer. There is a chaplain in the United States Senate and the United States House. They even open sessions with prayer. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have defended this right.
Abby summed it up best:
This case is incredibly important because it is a legislative prayer case; and as we point out in our appellate brief there is a long history of our nation’s leaders – local and national leaders – calling for prayer during difficult times in history, and that is exactly what occurred here.
These types of battles are why the ACLJ exists. We have defended these attacks against our first freedom for over three decades. We will continue to monitor this case and provide updates. For an in-depth analysis of the case, read here.
Today’s full Sekulow broadcast is complete with further analysis of a federal district court’s flawed ruling that found city officials’ support for a community prayer vigil as unconstitutional and our fight to overturn this ruling and defend religious liberty on appeal.
Watch the full broadcast below.
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