Proselytizing Post Office Violates Constitution, Says AU In Legal Brief

A post office in Manchester, Conn., run by a church must stop proselytizing and displaying religious material, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has told a federal appeals court.

The U.S. Postal Service permits private contractors to run “contract postal units” (CPUs) to boost service in some parts of the country. CPUs display postal symbols and provide many of the same services as government-run post offices.

The CPU in Manchester, a city of about 54,000 near Hartford, is run by the Full Gospel Interdenominational Church through a business titled Sincerely Yours. Bertram Cooper, a city resident and Korean War veteran, sued over the CPU in 2003. Cooper said he was upset by the religious messages in what he assumed was a government facility.

“I’m walking into a place that’s doing government business – selling stamps, mailing parcels and so forth – and they’re doing this religious bit,” Cooper said.

The Associated Press reported that the building has the Postal Service’s familiar eagle logo on an outside wall but inside there are posters, advertisements and artwork of an evangelical Christian nature. One display invites customers to submit prayer requests if they “need a prayer in their lives.” A television monitor plays religious videos.

U.S. District Judge Dominic J. Squatrito agreed with Cooper, and in a 2007 ruling, ordered the Postal Service to stop the promotion of religion at the Manchester CPU.

Postal officials argued that a sign in Sincerely Yours stating that the religious messages are not approved by the Postal Service is sufficient. The case, Cooper v. U.S. Postal Service, is now on appeal, and AU attorneys have weighed in with a friend-of-the-court brief.

The legal brief, joined by the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, asserts that government contractors may not promote religion.

“When the state contracts with a private entity to fulfill a governmental obligation in the government’s name and under the government’s banner, the state has a special burden to ensure that its power and identity are not used to advance constitutionally impermissible purposes,” says the brief.

In other legal developments:

• Americans United’s legal team assisted in a separate case from Ohio recently. AU Senior Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser flew to Cincinnati on Oct. 24 to argue before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals as a friend of the court. The case, Bowman v. United States, deals with a military retiree named Linden Bowman who wants to take part in a federal program that allows ex-military personnel to receive compensation for public service work.

Bowman wants to be compensated for work he did as a youth pastor. Government officials say religious work is not eligible for compensation under the program and have refused. Bowman is being represented by a Virginia legal group called the Rutherford Institute.

Americans United argues that it is appropriate for the government to decline to support religious activities.