Letter from FFRF

A Wisconsin-based church/state watchdog group sent a cease and desist letter to the Shreveport Police Department.

(SHREVEPORT, LA) The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to Shreveport Police Chief Alan Crump, asking that the department stop promoting prayer vigils and get rid of its chaplaincy program.

So far in 2018 45 people died violent deaths in Shreveport. As the list of homicides grows, the Shreveport Police Department tries to come up with ways to slow the violence.Community engagement is a big part of the department strategy, and chaplains, like Debra Kelly, want to engage through prayer.

"Prayer is not something I take lightly, Kelly said. “Prayer is something that I do every day. Not just once a day. And it gives me peace, it gives me comfort, and it gives me power."

Kelly is one of about 20 Shreveport Police chaplains. This year, she organized multiple prayer vigils.

"The purpose of the police department prayer vigils is to bring together community, to try to stop violence," Kelly said.

In September, Lieutenant Greg Washington, who oversees the chaplaincy program, told Kelly she had to do things differently, after Sam Grover, an attorney from the FFRF, sent the letter to Crump in late August.

"We became aware that the police department in Shreveport organizes and promotes prayer vigils, on behalf of pastors working on behalf of the department… and these are then promoted on the (department) Facebook page," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF.

Grover said he wrote the letter after someone from the community complained about the vigils.

Shreveport City Attorney William Bradford provided the letter to KTBS.

"(The vigils) violate the Establishment Clause, which the Supreme Court has said time and time again 'mandates government neutrality between religion and religion -- and between religion and non-religion,'" the letter reads.

"Religion and government do not mix. They're supposed to be kept separate,” Gaylor said. “It is also unsettling to have a police department promote religion, because when you tie religion in with the police force, this puts the military or police power behind a religion. It has a threatening feeling to those of us who are not Christian."

Kelly said the vigils are non-denominational, and were never meant to be threatening.

"Other than typing out, 'We encourage all Buddhists, agnostics, Christians, Catholics, whatever to attend,' all I can say is, 'Everyone is encouraged to attend,'" Kelly said.

The letter also takes issue with the chaplaincy program, saying it has "expanded beyond any constitutionally justifiable purpose... And exposes the department to significant legal liability."

Grover didn't threaten any specific legal action in the letter, dated August 24. He did ask for a letter back, explaining what changes will be made by the department.

Washington said Bradford advised the department on what steps to take. Moving forward, the vigils can’t take place on city property, like a park. The police department also can’t promote the vigils on its official Facebook page.

According to Washington, on-duty officers can still attend the vigils in uniform, if they choose to do so.

Kelly said in the future, she will promote the vigils on her personal Facebook page, and tag the department page.

"I'm not sure how we're going to word it yet, but it will be promoted on social media,” Kelly said. “If I have to stand on the corner of Ardis Taylor and Mansfield Road and say, 'We're going to meet here, and let's work together to stop the shooting,' then that's what I'll do."

Grover said he has not received the written response he requested from the police department, but noted that it’s not atypical for him to wait this long to hear back. He said the person who filed the initial complaint considers the matter resolved, so the FFRF does as well.

The next vigil is scheduled for October 26 at 5 p.m., in the Walmart parking lot on Mansfield Rd.

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