A Kentucky police officer has been cleared of wrongdoing after his February suspension for praying while off-duty in front of an abortion clinic.
After months of legal limbo, the officer, who has chosen to remain anonymous for safety concerns, received a letter from the Louisville Metro Police Department informing him that he had not violated any department or city statutes and that he could return to work. The department has yet to tell him what day he will be back on duty.
Matt Heffron of the Thomas More Society, a nonprofit religious liberty firm, began working with the officer in March and has been seeking a speedy resolution for months. The officer, who has a wife and four children, has an otherwise spotless 13-year career with the police department.
"We are happy for the officer that the Louisville Police Department finally did the right thing and put a good policeman back on the streets," Heffron said. "It is astounding to those of us defending him—shocking actually—that the police department would treat a hardworking, loyal officer this way. They left him twisting in the wind for four months because of off-duty prayer."
The Louisville Metro Police Department did not respond to request for comment.
In February, the officer prayed outside on the sidewalk of the EMW Women's Surgical Center before heading to work. He parked his car alongside the road and covered his uniform with nondescript clothing so that he would not be identified as a police officer while praying. As he was leaving, one of the clinic's escorts spotted the officer and reported him to the department. Later that day, the officer was called off-duty and back to the station, where he was suspended. The department proceeded to take four months to investigate whether the officer had acted inappropriately.
"There is no dispute about the facts. There is no dispute about what the law is," Heffron told the Washington Free Beacon. "So they should have and could have dealt with this investigation within days, if not the same day."
The clinic captured the incident on tape and released it to investigators. The footage showed the officer was not in uniform as he prayed. His lawyers are now demanding an explanation for why the investigation took so long. "We have sent at least two follow-up letters to the police department saying, ‘What's going on? Why can this possibly take so long?'" Heffron said.
According to Heffron, the department maintained the off-duty praying was a form of political protest and therefore unsuitable for the officer. The department took no such action, however, against officers who have participated in other demonstrations, including Black Lives Matter protests and gay pride marches.
"During BLM protests, they had widely publicized photos and videos of officers who were on duty, in complete uniform, marching with the protesters," Heffron said. "The only one that they were willing to take, even to start an investigation on, was the guy who was praying quietly before he goes to work. What does that tell you?"
Heffron could not comment on whether the officer would take further action against public authorities, though he did say that it showed the city's hostility to religious liberty. "It's a matter of government, particularly local government here, showing their true colors about what they think of religious liberty," he said.
A department spokeswoman declined request for comment, instead pointing to the June 15 letter from police chief Erika Shields. Shields wrote to the officer, "There is no question that you participated in protest activity while in uniform," but the "failure to consistently enforce" the prohibition against political protest meant that the charges would not be sustained. She warned that strict compliance would be enforced in the future.
Update June 28: This post has been updated to include quotations from the letter Louisville police chief Erika Shields wrote to the officer.