The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state/church watchdog, sent a letter and open records request to the Orlando Police Department (Fla.) on Nov. 3, objecting to the department's chaplain program. The complaint is the latest in a series of objections over law enforcement chaplaincies the FFRF has lodged this year.
FFRF represents more than 1,000 Florida members, and 21,500 nationwide. FFRF's chapter, Central Florida Freethought Community, directed by David Williamson, brought the Orlando violations to FFRF's attention.
Orlando chaplains, as is typical, are required to be ordained ministers with experience as pastors, who counsel employees, employees' families, and victims of crimes, and assist with death notifications and other police activities. Orlando's chaplain program does have one distinct feature – a car with an "Orlando Police Chaplain" graphic displayed across the side. FFRF's records request asks for documents relating to this car, as well as many other aspects of the chaplain program.
So far this year, FFRF has sent 14 letters of complaint about chaplaincies to police departments and sheriff's offices across the country, as well as one fire department. This is a substantial increase from the number of letters sent on the issue in previous years, surpassing the past two years combined.
Some programs FFRF complained about this year are longstanding, but many cities and counties are launching new chaplain programs. Millville, N.J., swore in its first police chaplains in June. Police Chief Robert Manley, of Apopka, Fla. swore in pastors in February, reviving a discontinued chaplain program, saying that "he wanted to bring faith into the organization to help officers and their families cope with the stress of the job," according to The Apopka Chief. Rochester, N.Y., kicked off a "Clergy on Patrol" program in September, sending members of the clergy on foot patrols with police officers with the alleged purpose being to improve law enforcement's relationship with the community.
Some chaplain programs have other troubling elements, like chaplains delivering prayers at department ceremonies, or training law enforcement officers on subjects outside their expertise such as ethics and stress management. Some chaplains have contact with juveniles. A chaplain was photographed at a session of the Police Department's "Police Explorers" program in Dunwoody, Ga., whose participants are ages 14-21. The job description for Rochester's Clergy Response Team says that clergy "may volunteer in high schools with School Resource Officers." And Millville's chaplains made headlines in August for actually picking up and detaining children who had violated curfew.
The bulk of FFRF's complaints have come from the South: three complaint letters have gone to Georgia, and four to Florida, so far this year.
Most chaplain programs employ only Christian pastors. Many programs do not even attempt to hide their Christian affiliation. The Laurens County, Ga., Sheriff's Office and Reidville, S.C., Fire Department both posted bible quotes on their websites, which were removed after FFRF contacted the agencies. Still hosted on the Okaloosa County, Fla., Sheriff's Office website is a video in which Sheriff Larry Ashley says he tells potential chaplains that the chaplaincy is "a ministry . . . similar to being a pastor of a church."
Attorney Andrew Seidel, one of five FFRF staff attorneys, handled most of the chaplain complaints on behalf of FFRF. His letters explain that courts allow government-employed chaplains only as an accommodation where the government makes it difficult for people to seek out private ministries, as is the case with military service members or prisoners. Since there is no government-imposed religious burden on law enforcement officers or the public, the government does not need to provide chaplains for them.
"Favoring religious officers with free, on-the-job counseling while ignoring the needs of those of no faith is discriminatory," Seidel notes. "If chaplains were adept at providing secular therapy, they would be therapists, not chaplains. There is no reason to think a nonbelieving employee would be comfortable dealing with a person who provides comfort from a religious viewpoint."
FFRF objected to chaplains assisting with victims, instead of bona fide therapists. Seidel points out, "Community resources or licensed therapists who actually have certification in victim counseling should be the first resort for those vulnerable people, not members of the clergy."
Seidel also noted that higher religiosity correlates to more crime and more violent crime.
There are few existing court decisions or laws governing law enforcement chaplaincies, which perhaps explains why agencies try to stonewall FFRF's objections, maintaining that their chaplaincies are lawful. Orlando Police Chief John Mina emailed back the day after receiving FFRF's letter, saying, "I have no intention of discontinuing our Chaplain Program," but failed to cite any law or decision permitting it to continue.
Taking the law enforcement chaplain fight to court is likely the next step for FFRF.
"We turn to police departments for protection and enforcement of the law. Police should be there equally for everyone, regardless of religious or irreligious views. Police officers are typically armed, represent the power of the state and have authority to detain you, arrest you. This makes the unconstitutional alliance of religion with law enforcement particularly intimidating to a nonbeliever, a Muslim, a Jew or other religious minorities," added FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has reported several allegations of unlawful pulpit politicking to the Internal Revenue Service so far this year.
FFRF, a national state/church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., in August voluntarily dismissed a high-profile federal lawsuit against the IRS, challenging its failure to enforce its own electioneering restrictions against churches. FFRF dismissed its suit after the IRS indicated that it had resumed flagging churches involved with political intervention. FFRF may refile its suit against the IRS in the future if there is evidence the IRS resumes looking the other way when tax-exempt churches violate the law.
Prior to Tuesday's elections, FFRF passed onto the IRS nine complaints about churches improperly endorsing or opposing candidates for political office. FFRF is investigating further complaints that came to light this week.
All 501(c)(3) nonprofits, including churches, are prohibited from intervening in any election or engaging in partisan politicking, such as by supporting or opposing specific candidates. "The regulations ensure that 501(c)(3) groups do not abuse the public trust, since tax exemption is a privilege and a form of public subsidy," explains FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
Many electioneering complaints stem from pastors who purposely violate electioneering restrictions from the pulpit as part of "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," an annual event put on by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian Right group. ADF and their allies argue that religious groups should be given special treatment, and be allowed to engage in partisan activity while maintaining their tax-exempt status. Many pastors, at the urging of ADF, have sent videos of their lawbreaking sermons directly to the IRS, hoping to incite a legal challenge to rescind the 1954 law against politicking by 501(c)(3) churches. According to ADF, more than 1,700 pastors participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday in October.
Pastors reported to the IRS by FFRF include Skyline Church Pastor Jim Garlow of La Mesa, Calif. In a sermon, Garlow described a letter sent by some Christian right groups to Republican leadership opposing certain Republican candidates across the country, including Carl MeMaio, running for California's 52nd Congressional District. DeMaio is gay. Garlow encouraged his parishioners to go one step further and vote for DeMaio's Democratic opponent as part of what he called "defensive tactical voting." The contest is still a toss-up, with DeMaio leading as of the latest election reports.
Other flagrant violations have come in the form of "sample ballots" provided by churches with "suggested candidates" filled in or highlighted. Legacy Church in Albuquerque, N.M., handed out such ballots to their parishioners along with actual campaign materials for certain candidates. Three candidates were also introduced during the church's Oct. 11 service.
Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Fla., set out "Conservative Primary Ballots" in August. The ballots indicated how liberal or conservative each candidate was judged to be, placing stars next to the most conservative candidate in each race. The church apparently thought that a small disclaimer at the bottom negated the blatant endorsement of candidates: "This is a Pro-Family, Pro-Life, Conservative Ballot. It is not represented by any religious organization. (Churches cannot endorse candidates.)"
Several other religious organizations, including Habitat for Humanity in Winter Garden, Fla., were reported for posting political campaign signs on their property. FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert, one of five FFRF staff attorneys, handled the complaints.