Police Department Blurs Church/State Lines in AHA Lawsuit

This month, the legal team at the American Humanist Association (AHA) is hard at work prepping for upcoming oral arguments at the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, for an incredibly important separation of church and state case.

Rojas, et al. v. City of Ocala, Fl, originally brought by the AHA in 2014 on behalf of four concerned Marion County residents, considers the constitutionality of a Christian prayer vigil organized 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 through a flier on official department letterhead, signed by the Chief of Police, and posted it to their public Facebook page. Additionally, the vigil was held on a Jewish High Holiday.

Although the evidence says otherwise, the City of Ocala claims that the prayer vigil was a private event. On top of that, they argue that the purpose of the vigil was to pressure witnesses in an open shooting investigation.

“Using prayer to lure worshipers into a witness interrogation is an extreme abuse of power,” said Monica Miller, Legal Director and Senior Counsel at the AHA and lead counsel on the case.

In 2018, the AHA won its original lawsuit against the City of Ocala, with Judge Timothy J. Corrigan stating: “In sum, under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the government cannot initiate, organize, sponsor, or conduct a community prayer vigil… That is what happened here.”

Shortly after the decision, the City of Ocala—represented by former Trump lawyers Jay and Jordan Sekulow—filed a Motion to Vacate. When that motion was denied, they then filed an opening brief in 2021 to appeal. They have stated that they intend to push the case to the Supreme Court.

Now, the case is at the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which will hear oral arguments on April 28th.

It’s clear that a tax-payer funded, government-sponsored event endorsing a particular religion and promoting a prayer vigil is blatantly unconstitutional and excludes citizens that the Ocala Police Department is supposed to serve and protect.

The United States Constitution includes the Establishment Clause because the framers understood exactly what happens to democracy when a small religious few are favored. “It is not an exaggeration to say that the Establishment Clause exists to prohibit events exactly like Ocala’s police-led church service,” comments Miller.

It’s important to pay attention to cases like this, as they’re part of a larger trend to disregard some of the founding values of the United States: freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. If this can happen in Ocala, Florida, it can happen anywhere.