Phoenix Police ‘United in Christ’ Event Sparks Backlash

“UNITED IN CHRIST A CALL TO PRAYER,” reads a peculiar flyer that advertises a Christian vigil and shows Phoenix Chief Jeri Williams and other officers with their heads bowed and hands folded. The police-themed vigil, apparently featuring Chief Williams, was set to be held Friday, October 4, outside Phoenix City Council Chambers.

But the event is being put off after the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona argued that the Constitution prohibits government agencies from holding such prayer services. A newsletter promoting the event indicates that this isn’t the first Phoenix police-led prayer vigil, but the sixth.

The event is being promoted and organized by BridgeBuilders International Leadership Network, a Glendale-based organization whose mission is to “foster God honoring relationships that mobilize the body of Christ.”

BridgeBuilders’ website is filled with posts advertising events like, “Pray for Our President in Turbulent Times” and “Will Kavanaugh be Confirmed to the Supreme Court? How to Pray!”

The flyer, and the event, have been shared since September 20 on Facebook, in a MailChimp newsletter, and on the website for the City of Phoenix Employees for Christ.

“BridgeBuilders, Phoenix Police Officers, their families and our partners invite you to join us for the 6th Annual Phoenix PD Prayer Watch,” the newsletter states. “It’s an evening dedicated to praying for those who sacrifice so much to keep us safe on the streets and in our homes.”

“Please make plans to be part of this powerful evening of prayer led by Phoenix police officers,” states the newsletter, which is signed by BridgeBuilders founder Hal Sacks. “Together we release the powerful prayers of agreement, calling upon God to cover and protect our law enforcement personnel in Phoenix and across our state.”

Screenshots from BridgeBuilder's website

Screenshots from BridgeBuilder’s website

Via BridgeBuilders

A spokesperson for the city attorney’s office told Phoenix New Times the “United in Christ” event has been cancelled.

But Sergeant Tommy Thompson, a spokesperson for the Phoenix Police Department, said the event is being rescheduled.

“The Friday event is being rescheduled. There was a concern that the way the event was promoted gave the impression the event was not inclusive. That was not the intent,” Thompson said in a statement emailed to New Times. “All members of the community are invited and the marketing for the new event will make that more clear. Numerous community groups and employee groups are allowed to, and have used city facilities for various events regarding a variety of topics. The Phoenix Police Department is proud of the long-established partnerships it has with community groups from all backgrounds and beliefs.”

The Phoenix Police Department did not respond to questions about who organized the event, where the photo came from, and whether it was staged and taken specifically for this event. The photo looks professionally done, raising questions as to whether a Phoenix police employee took it and created the “United in Christ” flyer at work, or whether the Phoenix Police Department paid BridgeBuilders to create the promotional materials.

Jared Keenan, criminal justice attorney at ACLU of Arizona, questioned the department’s statement about rescheduling the event.

“I think they’d have to drastically change the concept of it for it not to be problematic constitutionally,” Keenan said. “When you start using government resources to advance one religion over others, it’s a problem, and in this case, they were not only promoting one particular religion, they were using government expenses to do so.”

The flyer offers free parking at the 305 West Jefferson Garage and says parking meters would be covered to allow for free parking on the street.

Phoenix police officer Craig Weemhoff, whose name and contact information is listed on the flyer, told New Times he could not respond to questions about the event without department approval, per PPD policy.  Weemhoff is a member of the Phoenix Police Department’s Faith Based Advisory Board.

On Tuesday, the ACLU sent a letter to Chief Williams and Phoenix City Attorney Cris Meyer urging them to cancel the event and noting that the Supreme Court has ruled that a government-sponsored prayer vigil violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Several features appear to make the “United in Christ” prayer vigil a government-sponsored religious event, including:

• The letter notes that the vigil would be held outside City Council chambers.
• The vigil appears to be organized with the help of police department officials.
• The flyer features a photo of the police chief and several other uniformed officers.
• According to at least one description, the event will include “four hours of on site prayer” to be “led by members of the Phoenix Police Department.”

“The government’s promotion of a particular religious perspective is especially troubling when it involves police officials, who have sworn an oath to protect all members of the community,” wrote ACLU interim legal director Marty Lieberman. “It may alienate potential witnesses, victims, and other members of the public who do not share the department’s favored religious beliefs yet must rely on its services.”

The “United in Christ” messaging, accompanied by an image of the head of the Phoenix Police Department bowing her head in prayer, doesn’t exactly make the department appear to be one whose officers would treat all citizens equally — especially not after 97 current and former Phoenix police officers were found to have shared racist and Islamophobic posts on Facebook.

Facebook posts from Phoenix police officers

Facebook posts from Phoenix police officers

Via Facebook

In June, hundreds of Facebook posts made by Phoenix police officers were published in a database created by the Plain View Project in an effort to catalog bigotry and racism among police officers nationwide. The posts show Phoenix police officers frequently referred to black people as “thugs,” called for violence against protesters, denounced Muslims as rapists, and joked about refusing to help citizens who criticized the police.

Several current Phoenix police officers demonstrated an intolerance toward Muslims in their social media posts, including David Pallas and Clinton Swick, each veteran police officers who have worked for the department for nearly three decades. Pallas shared a photo of a goat captioned, “I don’t want to grow up to be abused as a Muslim sex slave” and a photo of the Quran captioned, “How about banning this, it offends me!”

Swick, meanwhile, shared a photo of a woman wearing a T-shirt that read, “Stop Muslims Now,” next to the words: “I’m not willing to let Muslims rape and kill me just to prove how tolerant I am.”

The Phoenix Police Department’s professional standards bureau is still reviewing the posts for misconduct.

Meanwhile, BridgeBuilders, the organization that has been the driving force behind the Phoenix Police Department’s Christian vigils, appears to take credit for Donald Trump’s presidency.

Under a section of the website called “Why We’re Needed,” BridgeBuilders states, “As believers, we are on the front lines in changing America’s spiritual direction. Following committed fasting and prayer by God’s people, our country is experiencing a historic shift in leadership. Many professing Christians have been given positions of authority within the administration of President Donald J. Trump, including Mike Pence, Ben Carson, Jeff Sessions, Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo.”