(Washington D.C., August 15, 2018) – Today, attorneys for the American Humanist Association (AHA) filed an opposition to the City of Ocala’s motion to vacate the U.S. District Court’s May 2018 ruling in the AHA’s favor. That decision held that a prayer vigil led by city and police department officials violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The court awarded plaintiffs nominal damages for the deprivation of their constitutional rights, making clear that city officials “cannot initiate, organize, sponsor, or conduct a community prayer vigil.”
“The District Court correctly ruled that the city’s Christian prayer vigil violated the Establishment Clause, entitling our clients to nominal damages as a matter of law,” says Monica Miller, Senior Counsel for the AHA. “The city’s attempt to overturn this sound ruling through a procedural rule reserved for extraordinary circumstances is destined to fail,” Miller added. “The city cannot demonstrate that the District Court’s exercise of jurisdiction in awarding nominal damages was wrong, much less an egregious usurpation of power, which would be necessary for it to prevail.”
The lawsuit, filed in November 2014, challenged the constitutionality of a Christian prayer vigil organized, led, promoted, and sponsored by the City of Ocala and its police department. The vigil included prayer, religious songs, Christian sermons, and call-and-response style preaching. The Ocala Police Department promoted the event on their public Facebook page and with a letter on official department letterhead and cosigned by the police chief and a representative of Ocala’s New Zion Missionary Baptist Church.
The AHA’s just-filed brief argues that the District Court’s “nominal damages award serves to promote the Ocala Police Department’s ‘scrupulous observance’ of the Constitution.” “When courts affirm the constitutional rights of citizens, public officials are deterred from violating other citizens’ rights in the future,” Miller wrote. “Vacating the nominal damage award would produce the opposite effect, serving only to vindicate the City and its officers for trampling on vital constitutional rights. This would be manifestly unjust, particularly because the City flagrantly violated the Constitution.”
The District Court agreed with the AHA that “it was clearly established that a government-sponsored prayer vigil would violate the Establishment Clause.” “Even without more,” the court noted, “an invitation by a city police department encouraging the community’s attendance at a Prayer Vigil entangles the government with religion.” “Given the additional involvement of the Ocala Police Department Chaplains in organizing and participating in the event while wearing their Ocala Police Department uniforms, the entanglement was excessive,” the court found.
“Police departments should serve and protect their communities, not preach at them” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “The residents of Ocala, Florida are entitled to a police force and city government that is inclusive to all,” concluded Speckhardt.