WASHINGTON – Following reports yesterday afternoon that police officers raided the Greater St. Mark Family Church under the pretense that they had been providing support and shelter to protestors in St. Louis County, Missouri, Interfaith Alliance president, Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy sent the following letter to the St. Louis County Police Chief:
Chief John Belmar
St. Louis County Police Department
7900 Forsyth Boulevard
St. Louis, MO 63105
August 21, 2014
Dear Chief Belmar,
On behalf of Interfaith Alliance, an organization committed to the separation of church and state representing Americans from over 75 faith traditions, I would like to register my concern regarding recent reports about St. Louis County Police treatment of houses of worship and religious communities. I find profoundly disturbing and constitutionally unsettling the reports coming out of St. Louis County, Missouri, that police officers have ‘raided’ a local church that opened its doors to aid protestors and provide a place of refuge for fatigued supporters of justice. Religious institutions hold a special status in our nation protected by the First Amendment. No religious body is above the law, but, without question, any government agency that enters a house of worship unwelcomed must be able to demonstrate a greater than usual reason for intrusion.
In looking carefully at what happened in Ferguson, what is ethical must be considered every bit as important as what is legal. The police action in question here was allegedly justified as dealing with a zoning violation or some other minor infraction by the church – a rationale for intrusion into a house of worship that is simply absurd. There is reasonable suspicion that the true intention of the law officers’ intrusion was to intimidate a religious community, which is deeply troubling regardless of the community’s participation in these protests. The greatest American religious leaders– from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – have taught us that social protest is a profound form of religious practice. To harass religious communities that engage in such protest violates the fundamental promise of religious freedom.
Interfaith Alliance remains concerned by the situation in Ferguson. The tragedy of Michael Brown’s death, the ensuing protests and the police’s startling response reaffirms the necessity of our recommitment to building communities that treat each other with civility, and working to ensure that our government respects the inherent dignity of every human being. The police action about which I write did exactly the opposite; it demonstrated an eagerness to silence the outcry of people of faith regarding injustice that perhaps some see as an embarrassment. So many people of different faith traditions and no faith tradition in Ferguson have proven the great power of communal action and responsibility. However, the police must do more to demonstrate the legitimacy of their legal rationale before engaging in behavior like raiding a church. Otherwise, officers of the law risk losing the public’s confidence and trust as public servants who safeguard the First Amendment and assure the civil rights of all those in Ferguson. I urge you to examine the incident in question and to ensure that your police department’s practices respect the rights of religious communities and the constitutional rights of all protestors.
Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy
Interfaith Alliance celebrates religious freedom by championing individual rights, promoting policies that protect both religion and democracy, and uniting diverse voices to challenge extremism. Founded in 1994, Interfaith Alliance brings together members from 75 faith traditions as well as those without a faith tradition to protect faith and freedom. For more information visit www.interfaithalliance.org.