July 19, 2016
In 2013, the ACLU and ACLU of Puerto Rico filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Officer Alvin Marrero-Méndez, a 13-year veteran of the Puerto Rico Police Department.
Officer Marrero-Méndez was attending a meeting with fellow police officers to receive instructions when his supervisor began to close the meeting with a Christian 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. The U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico held that the supervisors were not protected by qualified immunity. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently affirmed, ruling that 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.