10th Circuit Lets Police Officers Off the Hook After Telling Woman She Could Not Pray in Her Own Home
by Travis Weber, J.D., LL.M. , Natalie Pugh
November 22, 2017
First Liberty, a non-profit law firm, recently filed a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court on behalf of their client, Mary Anne Sause, after the 10th Circuit ruled that the police officers who told her she could not pray did not clearly violate her rights. As recounted by the court, and alleged in her complaint, the police officers entered Sause’s house to investigate a noise complaint. When one officer left to search the house, an action he did not provide a valid reason for, Sause became frightened and asked the officer with her if she could pray. The officer said she could and Sause knelt on her prayer rug and began to pray. Once the other officer returned to the room he allegedly ordered Sause to get up and stop praying as he and the other officer began to mock Sause for praying and tell her that she should leave the state since no one liked her. As recounted, the behavior of these officers is reprehensible in multiple ways. Yet it is also troubling that the 10th Circuit let the officers off the hook for their actions in this case.
In its opinion, the court held that even assuming the police officers violated Sause’s First Amendment rights when they told her to stop praying, the officers had qualified immunity and therefore could not be held responsible.
Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that protects public officials, such as police officers, from liability if their actions did not violate a clearly established law or constitutional right. Because the specific circumstances of this case had never been presented to the 10th Circuit before, that court claimed the officers did not violate a clearly established law and were protected by qualified immunity.
Yet the right to exercise your religion, in this case the right to pray, is clearly established—in the Constitution. While it is difficult to expect police officers to perfectly understand the legal dynamics of every possible situation they might encounter with a civilian, and thus qualified immunity may be necessary in some contexts to allow police officers to do their jobs effectively, the violation in this case is nevertheless obvious and the officers responsible should not be allowed to hide behind qualified immunity.
It is essential that officers understand basic rights—including our First Amendment rights—named in the Constitution, which every student learns in public school. To claim that a police officer shouldn’t be expected to know that an American citizen has the right to pray in a context like that alleged in this case is a dangerous turn.
The Supreme Court should take up this case and declare to the nation that religious freedom is a vital constitutional right which should be respected by all public officials. No individual in a country which claims to protect the religious liberty of its citizens should ever be told that they cannot pray.