Two California Highway Patrol officers were filmed in May praying with homeless people in Oakland. The video (below) of the prayer went viral, and triggered both praise and outrage.
Luis Ortega, a community liaison at the City of Oakland Council Office, posted the video on his Facebook page May 24 with the caption: "CHP – Golden Gate Division praying and handing out lunches to those without homes. Today with El Protector Officer Custodio Lopez and the Public Information Officer John Fransen in action with compassion. THANK YOU to Oakland Merchants Association (OMA) and to the CHP Officers for buying the meals."
In the video, which has almost a million views, the officers say a quick prayer with the homeless people and then give them food and water from a patrol car.
The American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center issued a press release June 7 announcing that it had warned the CHP June 6 that the officers' prayer while on duty violated the Establishment of Religion Clause in the First Amendment.
The American Humanist Association cited a May 27 Facebook re-posting by the CHP of Ortega's posting; the CHP's re-posting has since been removed.
"Highway patrol officers' proselytizing on the job, in addition to advertising such activity on social media, clearly endorses religion thus violating the state and federal Constitutions," Monica Miller, a lawyer for the group, said in the release. "Numerous citizens and taxpayers object to this religious promotion, and we insist that the California Highway Patrol prevent future incidents like this one."
Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, added: "Law enforcement has a duty to protect, not convert. When officers lead prayers on duty, they send an intimidating message to nonreligious citizens who may feel pressured to participate in religion and may feel unsafe in their own communities."
The American Humanist Association posted an update on June 8 that said it was satisfied with the CHP's response.
Miller stated: "The California Highway Patrol is taking our concerns seriously, and we appreciate their prompt response to this serious constitutional violation. When the state endorses prayer, it has a coercive effect on citizens, who may feel compelled to participate in the religious activity against their own convictions."