Atheists: Clergy at Crime Scenes Unconstitutional

Saturday, 26 Oct 2013 06:58 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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An atheists' group wants an Alabama city to prove that sending clergy to counsel crime victims is lowering crime statistics.

The city of Montgomery dispatches trained clergy to comfort victims at violent crime scenes, reports, through an organization called Operation Good Shepherd formed to combat violent crime.

But American Atheists, a national group, says that the city needs to prove that claim and not that it's using clergy to spread the word of God at crime scenes instead.

"Considering that the program sends pastors to crime scenes after the fact to console victims, American Atheists questions the city's claim that grief counseling for victims is for the purpose of reducing violent crime or acting as a deterrent," the national organization said. "American Atheists will be requesting that city officials provide the studies or other factual evidence they are using to support this claim for which taxpayer dollars are being used."

Earlier this month, American Atheists and the Freedom from Religion Foundation sent letters to Montgomery's police department following complaints from citizens about the new program, claiming sending clergy to crime scenes violates the Constitution's first and 14th amendments.

The group has already drawn up a lawsuit against the city, The National Review reports, and was looking for an attorney licensed in Alabama to take on the case.

American Atheists claims it got complaints from Alabama residents, and says that "any plan by public officials to engage in a scheme to promote Christianity using public funds and public officials" is "blatantly and facially unconstitutional."

Montgomery City Attorney Kimberly Fehl replied this past week, saying that there has been "a misrepresentation of the objective and implementation of the program. Operation Good Shepherd is one of a number of initiatives of the Montgomery Police Department as part of its efforts to combat an increase in violent crime."

Further, Fehl said, clergy have volunteered to act as counselors and their "traditions of faith are not considered when applying for the program."

But American Atheists complains that Montgomery Police Department Chaplain Baxter Morris said the program offers an "evangelistic advantage," while indicating his desire to share "a word from Christ" with crime victims.

"While awaiting further information, American Atheists calls on the city to diversify the program by including imams, rabbis, and secular grief counselors on a regularly rotating schedule," the organization said. "If the Good Shepherd program has no religious motive, then the city should be willing to send out any trained grief counselor to assist victims no matter the victims' or the counselor's religious background."

Freedom from Religion Foundation staff attorney Andrew Seidel said he is shocked the city is defending the program.

"I think they are feeding misinformation," Seidel said. "It seems very clear that the police officers and chaplains involved see this as an opportunity to convert people to Christianity and they have said as much."

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