The Police Tell An Elderly Catholic Woman She Can’t Pray – In Her Own Home

Jeremy Dys Senior Counsel, First Liberty Institute
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Every American should feel safe to pray in the privacy of her own home. Mary Anne Sause did not.

A knock on the door late one night startles Mary Anne. It would startle anybody not expecting company, but Mary Anne is almost 60, a retired nurse on disability who lives alone who still vividly remembers the night she was raped. Whoever is knocking elects not to disclose their identity, so Mary Anne does not answer the door.

When the knocking stops, she calls her neighbor across the way. Hearing the fear in Mary Anne’s voice, the neighbor looks out the window to see two police officers walking away from Mary Anne’s door. That means only more anxiety for Mary Anne. It’s always concerning to have the police show up at your door, but it’s even worse when you live alone in subsidized government housing.

Mary Anne’s neighbor comes over to help calm her shaken friend. Suddenly, there is another knock on the door. It’s the police again. This time, with a friend to stand beside her, Mary Anne opens the door to speak with the officers through the screen door. They demand to be admitted even thought they had not stated who they are, why they are there or what they want with Mary Anne.

Out of the corner of her eye, Mary Anne sees a copy of the pocket Constitution given to her by her congressman lying by the still-closed screen door. She grabs it and shows it to the officers. “That’s nothing, it’s just a piece of paper. Doesn’t work here,” the officer bellows and demands to be let in Mary Anne’s apartment.

Even more shaken than before, Mary Anne unlatches the screen door. The officer is agitated; he expects doors to be opened when he knocks and Mary Anne made him ask twice. After entering, he announces to Mary Anne that she should prepare to spend the night in jail.

Shocked and scared, Mary Anne, a devout Catholic, asks the officer if it would be alright if she prays. He agrees, and Mary Anne kneels in silent prayer in her living room. When the second officer returns to her apartment and asks what she is doing, the first officer laughs and says in a mocking tone, “she’s praying.” The other officer orders her, “Get up! Quit! Stop praying!”

Nearly an hour later, the officers prepare to leave. For the first and only time that night, the officers reveal the reason why they came to her apartment – a neighbor complained that her radio was “too loud.”

Police officers forced their way into an elderly woman’s home, dismissed the Constitution as “a piece of paper” that does not apply to an American citizen living in government housing, threatened a rape survivor with jail time when she questioned their presence in her home and, when she dared silently appeal to a higher authority in prayer, they ordered her to cease and desist her religious exercise — just because her radio was too loud!

The security of the First Amendment is that it protects American citizens from government officials mandating when and where you are permitted to pray. The right to freely exercise one’s religion—especially in one’s own home—is more than ink on paper; it is fundamental to who we are as humans. No police officer should ever order an American citizen to stop peacefully praying in her own home.

Mary Anne understood that. The police officers should have known that. And, surely a federal judge learned in law school that the Bill of Rights affords that very protection to peaceful Americans. Yet, when Mary Anne went to court to assert that protection, the judge brushed it aside, just like the officer brushed aside Mary Anne’s pocket Constitution, as nothing more than a “piece of paper.” According to the judge, “[w]hile [the officer’s] instruction to [Mary Anne] to stop praying may have offended her, it does not constitute a burden on her ability to exercise her religion.”

If an armed agent from the government ordering a woman to cease and desist her silent prayers “does not constitute a burden on her ability to exercise her religion,” then what does? What offends the Constitution – if not a state that deputizes its agents to force their way into a woman’s home and order the shaken occupant to stop praying?

The Supreme Court of the United States has called a person’s home, “the last citadel of the tired, the weary, and the sick.” That citadel is to be free of invasion by the government, except in a very limited set of circumstances. A judge in New Jersey phrased it eloquently, “Nothing can be more deeply personal than [a person’s] desire to worship in the manner at issue here. He is at home. He is in prayer. He is with friends. He is entitled to be left alone.”

Mary Anne was entitled to be left alone in prayer—even if her radio was too loud. Perhaps the police had a legitimate reason to be at Mary Anne’s apartment that evening, but there can be no justification for ordering Mary Anne to stop praying silently in her own home – especially when they had no legitimate law enforcement reason for doing so. Using a noise complaint as means to intimidate their way into her home and then mock her for praying silently when frightened by their threats of incarceration is the very opposite of freedom.

Our police serve an important, legitimate, and necessary function, but there is a limit to their authority. Ordering a woman to stop praying in her own home undoubtedly falls outside that function and authority.

Mary Anne is a victim of injustice. The officers sworn to protect her instead brushed aside her essential right to religious liberty like a “piece of paper.” And the federal district judge sworn to uphold the Constitution dismissed Mary Anne’s complaint as mere “offense” rather than a gross trampling of fundamental human rights.

My law firm, First Liberty Institute, and the international law firm of Gibson Dunn have taken Mary Anne’s appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit because Mary Anne deserves her day in court.

For a federal court to conclude that this injustice does not equate to “a burden on her ability to exercise religion” peacefully in the security of her own home, then the promise of the free exercise of religion is all but dead.

If that makes you feel as unsafe as Mary Anne Sause felt, it should.

Jeremy Dys, Esq. is Senior Counsel for First Liberty Institute, the nation’s largest law firm dedicated to protecting religious freedom for all Americans. He is also host of the First Liberty Briefing.”