Ocala, its police chief found to be liable for violating First Amendment with anti-crime prayer vigil

By Elizabeth Alt | Jun 11, 2018

OCALA – The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Ocala Division, recently issued a decision finding that the city of Ocala and Police Chief Kenneth Gregory Graham violated the First Amendment by sponsoring or endorsing a prayer vigil.

OCALA – The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Ocala Division, recently issued a decision finding that the city of Ocala and Police Chief Kenneth Gregory Graham violated the First Amendment by sponsoring or endorsing a prayer vigil.

U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Corrigan wrote the May 24 order granting summary judgment to a group of atheists who claimed Graham and the city of Ocala violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. Corrigan's order also granted summary judgment to Mayor Reuben “Kent” Guinn. 

“While the Ocala police chief and his subordinates were no doubt well-intentioned and sincere in sponsoring the prayer vigil, their actions violated the First Amendment,” the court order said.

The plaintiffs – Art Rojas, Lucinda and Daniel Hale and Frances Jean Porgal – alleged in their complaint that a prayer vigil in 2014 held in the wake of a crime spree that left several children injured violated the Establishment Clause that prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another. The plaintiffs claimed they wanted to be a part of the community effort to help stop crime but felt unwelcome or uncomfortable because of the religious nature of the event they likened to a “Christian tent revival.” The plaintiffs claim that during the vigil, several people led prayers or sang, but no one mentioned any efforts to stop the crime spree. 

The city, Graham and Guinn filed for summary judgment. Chief Graham argued that he was protected by qualified immunity, and that he was not the creator of the vigil. The mayor and the chief both argued that the event was not a government sponsored activity. The city claimed it could not be held liable as the vigil was a “fleeting incident” not indicative of their policy. 

Judge Corrigan emphasized Supreme Court rulings have made it clear that governments cannot sponsor a religious message, such as the one in this case that states “fervent prayer” is needed to combat the recent crime spree. “It sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.”

The court order stated that contrary to the arguments by Chief Graham and Mayor Quinn, the vigil was a government sponsored or endorsed event, noting that both the chief and the mayor refused to cancel it.

Corrigan granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs for their claims against Graham, stating that the chief was not entitled to qualified immunity. “The court is left with but one conclusion: Chief Graham’s actions violated the Establishment Clause,” the decision read.

Corrigan stated although Mayor Guinn could not be found liable for the vigil as he had no part in creating it and was protected by qualified immunity, the mayor’s actions, as well as the chief’s actions in the eight days between creating the prayer vigil and the date of the event point to the city’s liability. 

The court order granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs in their claims against the city, stating that the actions of the mayor and chief, “all in the face of vocal opposition which pointed out the (First Amendment) violation” exposed the city of Ocala to liability “for violating the Establishment Clause.”

The order granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs in their claims against Chief Graham and the city and granted summary judgment to Mayor Guinn. The plaintiffs were denied punitive damages and awarded nominal damages from the chief and the city, as well as attorney’s fees and costs to be heard by a magistrate judge. 

U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida,Ocala Division, Case Number 5:14-cv-251-Oc-32PRL

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