Puerto Rican Police Officials Find Out They Can’t Force Officers to Pray or Demote Them When They Refuse

How does a 13-year veteran of the Puerto Rico Police Department go from being a patrol officer to washing police cars? In the case of Officer Alvin Marrero-Méndez, all it took was refusing to participate in his boss’s official Christian prayers. After Officer Marrero-Méndez, an atheist, objected to the unlawful practice and declined to join his colleagues in prayer, he was demeaned by his supervisors, stripped of his gun, and effectively demoted to a messenger and car-washer.

In 2013, the ACLU and ACLU of Puerto Rico filed a federal lawsuit against Officer Marrero-Méndez’s supervisors. Today, ruling against the supervisors, a federal appeals court affirmed the obvious: The government cannot punish someone for refusing to pray, and officials who violate this basic constitutional principle can be held liable in court for their conduct.  

The defendants had argued that they should be immune from liability because, according to them, the law at the time was not clearly established. But as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit explained today, “If these actions do not establish religious coercion, we would be hard-pressed to find what would.”

Police officers take an oath to keep us safe and protect our rights, not to pray. 

As the court held, it’s hard to believe that anyone — even those with the most rudimentary understanding of the First Amendment— could think that the PRPD’s treatment of Officer Marrero-Méndez was permissible. His superiors ordered him to meet in a local parking lot with his fellow officers to receive instructions for the weekend’s assignment. Near the end of the briefing, as Officer Marrero-Méndez and others stood in formation, the commanding officer called for someone to lead a prayer.

When Officer Marrero-Méndez, an atheist, told his supervisor that he didn’t want to take part in the prayer, his supervisor ordered him to step aside (but demanded that he remain within earshot of the prayer) and berated him because he “doesn’t believe in what we believe.” Thereafter, when he expressed his dismay to other supervisors in the department, they took away his gun and effectively demoted him, reassigning him from the patrol he had worked for more than a decade to washing cars and doing clerical tasks.

Nevertheless, the supervisors argued that they were entitled to “qualified immunity,” a legal shield that protects government officials from being sued where it was not “clearly established” that their conduct was unlawful. But, as the appeals court recognized, whatever confusion may exist in the law about religious freedom, it’s been clear since our country’s founding that government officials can never punish someone for refusing to pray. That’s exactly what Officer Marrero-Méndez’s superiors did when they forced him to listen to a prayer to which he objected, derided his religious beliefs in front of colleagues, and then demoted him.

Police officers take an oath to keep us safe and protect our rights, not to pray. 

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Anonymous

If persons on U.S. "Territories" have 1st Amendment rights, wouldn't 14th Amendment and other due process rights apply to non-citizen persons in Guantanamo Bay?

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that non-citizens that are immigrants have 14th Amendment rights and a federal appeals court ruled that John Ashcroft could personally be sued for illegally detaining non-citizens. So why not Gitmo?

Anonymous

Gitmo isn't a US territory... it's in Cuba

Alanna Zvingila...

Um, one problem with that....they aren't immigrants! They are detainees/prisoners. A whole different kettle of fish!

HawkAtreides

While I agree with you that we cannot be a nation of two legal systems, one for citizens and one for anyone arbitrarily deemed unworthy of the protections guaranteed by the Constitution, it is important to remember that the people of almost every US Territory - Puerto Rico inclusive - are United States citizens.

Anonymous

Pursuant to 8 U.S.C. § 1402, all people born in Puerto Rico, on or after January 13, 1941, are citizens of the United States at birth.

Anonymous

Puerto Ricans are not "persons in U.S. territories". Puerto Ricans are American citizens not unlike those born in any of the States.

Anonymous

Ice! So are the officers who did this going to be held responsible? If they can't understand something as cut and dry as this then they shouldnt be the ones enforcing laws on other people. They hardly know the law themselves.

DB

I wouldn't frame the argument that way because this isn't the area of the law that the police enforce.

Eva Quiñones

We are very proud of Alvin, and it took a lot of guts and bravery to not only oppose his obviously unsympathetic superiors, but to go against the status quo and sue the Police department for egregious and systemic violations to the constitutional separation of church and state. May this serve as a deterrent not only to the department but also to the entire government. As president of Humanistas Seculares de Puerto Rico, we are proud to have him as a member and recipient of our Humanist of the Year Award in 2013.

Anonymous

Just like there is freedom of religion there is freedom from ,such as freedom from your religion ACLU . If you want those to treat you fair be likewise ACLU. You should be jumping up and down in victory dance on this one don't think , because America was made for a Moral or Religious People .

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