Atheist Puerto Rican Cop Passes 1st-Circuit Hurdle

     (CN) — Puerto Rican police commanders cannot claim immunity after punishing an atheist officer for not participating in a Christian group prayer at a work meeting, the First Circuit ruled.
     Officer Alvin Marrero-Mendez is a self-professed atheist. He says that group meetings of Puerto Rican police officers, which happen about every other month, usually close with a Christian prayer.
     On March 9, 2012, his commander, Officer Guillermo Calixto-Rodriguez, called for a volunteer to lead a closing prayer in front of 40 officers standing in military formation.
     Marrero says he pulled Calixto aside and told him he did not feel comfortable taking part in the prayer, because he was not Christian and it violated the Constitution’s mandate to keep separation between church and state.
     Calixto allegedly became angry and humiliated Marrero in front of the assembled officers, ordering him out of the formation because “he doesn’t believe in what we believe in.”
     After the incident, Marrero’s weapon was taken away due to his emotional state, and he was effectively demoted — he was reassigned to perform vehicle maintenance, rather than the law enforcement activities for which he was trained, according to court records.
     A federal judge denied Marrero’s superiors qualified immunity on his claims, and the First Circuit affirmed Tuesday.
     “The prayer in question was unmistakably a state action,” Judge Kermit Lipez said, writing for a three-judge panel. “Moreover, regardless of how one may interpret the constitutionality of the prayer in and of itself, the subsequent events make clear that appellants’ actions (collectively) constituted direct and tangible coercion.” (Parentheses in original.)
     It also should have been clear to Marrero’s superiors in 2012 that the prayer with a group of police officers at work was “state-sponsored,” not a spontaneous exercise by private individuals, the First Circuit panel found.
     Marrero was not given the opportunity to opt-out of the prayer and was shamed for not subscribing to the same faith as the other officers, the Boston-based appeals court noted.
     “Indeed, the coerciveness of appellants’ conduct is so patently evident that no particular case — and certainly not one ‘directly on point’ — need have existed to put a reasonable officer on notice of its unconstitutionality,” Lipez said. “Existing precedent supports this inescapable conclusion.”

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