June 2022 Church & State Magazine

Federal Appeals Court Hears Case Of Fla. City’s Sponsorship Of Prayer Vigil

  Federal Appeals Court Hears Case Of Fla. City’s Sponsorship Of Prayer Vigil

A federal appeals court in late April heard oral arguments in a case challenging a prayer vigil sponsored by a police chief in Ocala, Fla.

Greg Graham, who was the city’s chief of police at the time, was heavily involved in promoting the prayer vigil in September 2014. At the time, the community had been rocked by a spate of shootings.

Three residents of the American Humanist Association (AHA) attended the vigil, and later filed a lawsuit against it. A federal court ruled in their favor in 2018.

Attorneys for the city insist that the event was private and that it was “organized and put on by private citizens and volunteer chaplains for the Ocala Police Department,” reported the News Service of Florida.

But the plaintiffs, who are represented by the AHA, say Graham promoted the event on social media and ensured that Police Department chaplains attended.

The city also argues that even though the event was a prayer vigil, it had the secular purpose of opposing crime.

“Here, the secular purpose – i.e. to fight crime and catch the culprit – remained clear and understood by all, including the plaintiffs from the first posting on Facebook to the vigil itself,” the city’s attorneys wrote in a brief.

AHA attorneys disagreed, writing, “It would take Olympic level stretching to find that the government acted neutrally with regard to religion in this case.”

The case, American Humanist Association v. City of Ocala, is pending before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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