SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Lawyers filed a lawsuit Friday against some of Puerto Rico’s top police officials, accusing them of discriminating against an officer for being an atheist and not adhering to the separation of church and state.
It is one of the first cases of its kind filed in the deeply religious U.S. territory, where 85 percent of the people consider themselves Roman Catholic and a large minority is Protestant.
The case involves police officer Alvin Marrero Mendez, 38, who repeatedly refused to participate in Christian prayers held at his precinct because he is an atheist.
In one case, attorneys say his supervisors held a prayer in the parking lot of a shopping mall prior to an intervention. Marrero objected and his supervisors ordered him to abandon the formation, yelling, “He is standing there because he doesn’t believe in what we believe in,” the lawsuit states.
After Marrero filed a complaint, lawyers said, supervisors demoted the 14-year veteran, stripped him of his gun and made him wash patrol cars and act as a messenger.
The ACLU is seeking a court judgment stating that forced prayer in a government workplace violates the doctrine of separation of church and state as well as the officer’s freedom. Puerto Rico’s constitution specifically states there needs to be complete separation of church and state.
The ACLU also requested a court order to stop the alleged retaliation.
“Government employees should never be forced to pray with the boss,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
Michelle Franco, a spokeswoman for Puerto Rico’s police chief, Hector Pesquera, did not respond to a request for comment.
One of the supervisors named in the lawsuit, Guillermo Calixto Rodriguez, was appointed police chief for the capital of San Juan in January. He could not be reached for comment.
The lawsuit highlights how church and state are often intertwined in Puerto Rico, a conservative island of 3.7 million people.
A couple years ago, officials with the Treasury Department organized a Catholic Mass in the building’s lobby, complete with an altar.
Prayer circles have been held at the Supreme Court.
And in March 2012, former Police Chief Emilio Diaz Colon promoted more than 470 officers at a ceremony held at a church, saying at the time, “We are very grateful that God is with us at the Puerto Rico Police Department.”
Diaz was criticized at the time for his comments and for using the church, but he said the location was provided at no cost and was large enough to accommodate everyone who attended.
“This has always been a problem in Puerto Rico,” said William Ramirez, the ACLU’s local director. “It’s very divisive and it’s unconstitutional. ... Government is sending a message, ‘This is what we believe, and we believe you should be believing.’”