An atheist group is criticizing the Cincinnati Police Department (CPD) for partnering with religious congregations for a prayer walk initiative.
The CPD invited "all citizens to participate" in the initiative being held in 14 different communities to help quell the violence that has plagued the city. Congregations were asked to take part in seven prayer walks every Saturday through mid-November.
Police records show a 51 percent increase in homicides this year compared to last year, with 59 homicides reported so far this year compared to 39 homicides in 2012.
The atheist group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), is now criticizing the police department for its initiative. It cited the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and said the government cannot promote, advance, or endorse religion.
The organization said officers should "get off their knees and get to work" in a letter to the department and stated that prayer has not been proven to be a deterrent to crime.
Pastors from over a dozen congregations are holding the prayer walks.
Pastor Drew Smith of the College Hill Presbyterian Church said the first prayer walk was successful.
"When 25 diverse people walk side by side through the neighborhood, it has a unique sense of power to it," Smith said.
Ennis Tait, pastor of the Church of the Living God, said the recent rise in homicides in the city is due to "gang activity starting to pick up." He indicated that unlike in other cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles, the gangs in Cincinnati are not as organized, but are they are still fighting over territory.
The police department is doing its job to fight violence and is "just a connector" bringing all sectors of the community, including religious leaders, together to fight against certain behaviors that are leading to violence and crime.
Tait said the first two walks "have gone very well." The walks are the beginning of a larger plan that will help reduce violence in the long run and "bring healing to the community," Tait said.
The walks are "raising awareness" and are bringing "people out to ask questions" about the initiative. Prayer vigils, workforce training, job fairs, counseling and other programs are planned for the future to help residents.
"They need to find the courage to look inside themselves as to what they could bring to the community," Tait said. "I believe we try every measure of hope there is."
Smith said he had not heard about the letter from FFRF. However, he said police officers did not take part in the prayer walk his congregation held.
"Our walk had no uniformed police officers present," Smith said. Tait also said officers were not at their walk.
The police department’s role in the prayer walks is not promoting religion, according to Tait. "The police department is not serving as preachers or religious leaders, they are partners with us, it’s a collaboration," Tait said. "They are just a connector."
"A police officer is a police officer, sworn to uphold peace, that’s what we’re advocating for," Tait said. He said the atheist group’s claim that police officers are promoting religion is not the case.
According to Smith, people were not told to pray aloud during the prayer walks but instead took part in silent prayer. He said he would hope groups critical of the initiative would "like to see the positive in the relationship" between the police and citizens.
Smith said he hoped individuals "would positively develop one [initiative] that would best represent their convictions […] instead of being negative."
"Calling upon citizens to pray is coercive and beyond the authority of any government, let alone a law enforcement arm of the government," FFRF wrote to CPD. "Citizens should not be made to feel offended, excluded, or like political outsiders because the police department they support with their taxes imposes religious rituals on them."
The CPD did not respond to requests for comment.
The FFRF is also targeting the Montgomery, Ala. police department for sending pastors out to crime scenes.