Atheist cop in Puerto Rico wins discrimination lawsuit
Back in 2013, we reported on the case of veteran Puerto Rico police officer Alvin Marrero-Méndez, who was demoted for refusing to take part in police prayer sessions, and was demoted and humiliated for his refusal.
Well, it’s just been reported that Marrero-Méndez, an atheist, has won a a lawsuit against the Puerto Rico Police Department, which stripped him of his gun, and demoted him to being a messenger and car-washer.
In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Puerto Rico filed a federal lawsuit against Officer Marrero-Méndez’s supervisors.
This week a federal appeals court ruled in the officer’s favour, saying that he 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 US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit explained:
If these actions do not establish religious coercion, we would be hard-pressed to find what would.
The court said it was 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 Marrero-Méndez 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.
Later, 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.
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 recognised, whatever confusion may exist in the law about religious freedom, it’s been clear since the 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 atheism in front of colleagues, and then demoted him.
Police officers take an oath to keep us safe and protect our rights, not to pray.