CEDAR RAPIDS — A foundation focused on separation of church and state is calling on Linn County law enforcement agencies to not participate in prayer services scheduled for Sunday in front of the agencies.
The Cedar Rapids Police Department published a news release this week announcing the “To Pray and Serve” prayer services to be held at 3 p.m. Sunday outside the offices of the Cedar Rapids, Hiawatha and Marion police departments and Linn County Sheriff’s Office.
Area pastors are inviting community members to come pray for “officers’ safety and sound judgment, as well as the community’s responsibility for good citizenship,” according to a flier attached to the news release.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wisconsin, sent emails to the law enforcement agencies Thursday, saying Cedar Rapids residents had alerted them to the prayer services.
“It is unconstitutional for government officials to use their government office to advance, promote or endorse one religion over another, or religion over nonreligion,” states the letter, a copy of which was provided to The Gazette Friday. “The Cedar Rapids Police Department’s participation in and promotion of this event communicates the message that the city government endorses prayer and encourages its citizens to engage in it.”
Cedar Rapids public safety spokesman Greg Buelow said the prayer services are not sponsored by the law enforcement agencies.
The events are to be outside the agencies, which is public property, and officers who choose to attend the events do so as individual community members, he said.
The foundation states in its letter police should not wear uniforms if they attend the prayer service because it creates the appearance of a department endorsement of religion, but Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner disputes that.
“There is nothing that says they can’t wear their uniforms,” he said, adding that any officers who choose to attend would not be paid during that time.
Gardner doesn’t see the prayer service as any different from people writing thank you letters to police or delivering cookies.
“If a group of atheists wants to stop by and thank us, that’s OK, too,” he said.
Rev. Pat Fish, pastor at Holy Redeemer Lutheran Church, in Cedar Rapids, said he and other pastors hatched the idea as a way to come together as a community after the Nov. 1 Cedar Rapids officer-involved shooting of Jerime “Danky” Mitchell, now paralyzed, and the fatal shootings earlier this month of two police officers in the Des Moines area.
“The divide I see between law enforcement and the community breaks my heart,” Fish said.
The pastors talked with Cedar Rapids police Sgt. Cristy Hamblin about ways to involve police in the community dialogue and decided on an informal prayer service, followed by a social time. The church leaders wrote up and distributed the news release and printed fliers, Fish said. They did not ask police to distribute the news release, he said.
“We are doing this for them, it’s not by them,” Fish said of police.
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