The Interfaith Alliance, a church-state separation and religious liberty advocate, today sent a letter to the St. Louis County Police Department Chief John Belmar, raising concerns that the police action at Greater St. Mark Family Church might have violated the First Amendment. In a statement yesterday, the police department said its officers visited a building adjacent to the church over claims the church lacked an occupancy permit for people to sleep there. In the letter, the organization’s president, the Rev. Welton Gaddy, wrote:
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.
From the religious right, there is often outcry over alleged government overreach in churches, particularly the enforcement of Internal Revenue Service prohibitions on candidate endorsements by clergy whose institutions enjoy the benefits of tax exempt status. This concern with the police action, however, is a remarkable contrast, demonstrating the radically different concerns over government interference in religion on the right and the left.