Indiana Eliminates State Chaplain Post

According to the Indianapolis Star (Aug. 16), a federal lawsuit filed on May 2 by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, challenging an unprecedented chaplain post to minister to employees of a state department, began the program’s unraveling.”

Rev. Michael Latham was hired last year to “encourage a faithful environment in the workplace,” the Foundation charged in its complaint.

The post imposed a religious test for public office, contrary to the dictates of the U.S. and Indiana state constitutions, requiring a minister to fill the position, and involved purely religious activities.

In August, following a lot of bad press, the Family and Social Services Administration announced that it would discontinue the program.

In a bizarre wrinkle, the Indianapolis Star revealed that although “the state has eliminated a controversial chaplaincy program, the man hired to lead it is receiving disability pay–and will be until he is well enough to be fired.”

Latham will receive 60% of his pay until he recovers enough to be officially fired. As of press-time, the Foundation had not yet dropped its lawsuit.

“We are waiting to see the settlement signed on the dotted line, and make sure that Latham will be off the public payroll,” say Foundation co-presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor.

The Star first ran a long expose on June 17, headlined: “State chaplain’s challenges multiply: Critics doubt program’s legality, leader’s credentials.”

The news story by Robert King reported that in nearly 18 months, and after spending $120,000 of tax money, the program “had met few of its goals.” Advertised as the first such public position in the country, the post included a goal of forging a network of volunteer chaplain counselors for FSSA offices. Some clergy volunteers initially contacted by Latham (who were all Christian, three with ties to Latham’s own church) told the Star they had not heard from him in such a long while they had assumed the program had ended.

Latham was hired at $60,000 a year, making him the state’s highest-paid chaplain, although he lacked the college degree and other credentials required of state hospital chaplains paid half his salary. Latham kept his fulltime ministry in Fort Wayne, and did not work out of a state office in Indianapolis.

Recently retired state chaplain Earl W. Hoppert said of Latham: “He’s overpaid and underqualified. I don’t know how he got that job.”

Latham was a rare African-American high-profile supporter of the Republican candidacy of Mitch Daniels, now governor. Latham gave a benediction at one of Daniels’ inaugural events.

In an op-ed piece running in the Star on June 25, columnist Sheila Suess Kennedy wrote she was willing to pay taxes but not for a pastor.

“Why in the world is Indiana spending our tax dollars to provide ‘a faithful environment’ for state employees?” she asked, pointing to the fact that FSSA clients “are Indiana’s poorest and most disadvantaged citizens.”

“So we violate the U.S. Constitution to pay a ‘part-time chaplain’ nearly three times what we pay a caseworker, so that he can provide those caseworkers with a ‘faithful environment?’ ” Kennedy wrote.

“I may be a voice in the wilderness here, but I am quite willing to pay taxes that are used to help Indiana’s poor children and disabled adults, or to provide assistance to struggling Indiana families. I am equally willing to pay taxes to provide state employees who are doing proper government work with a living wage and manageable workloads. But if those employees want ‘spiritual counseling,’ it is easily available from their own pastors, rabbis or imams, at no cost to the taxpayers of Indiana.”

Evidently this columnist was not a “voice in the wilderness.” Criticism of the program and revelations of its embarrassing defects rose to such a crescendo that the state offered to end the violation.

In addition to the Foundation’s four Indiana state taxpayer-plaintiffs, Craig Gosling, John Kiel, Sean O’Brien and Diana O’Brien, the Foundation in July had also added state employee Jonathan Kraeszig, an FSSA program director, who had been offended by the views promulgated at an office workshop engineered by Latham.

“We are very grateful to the four member-plaintiffs and to Mr. Kraeszig, as a state employee, for being party to this lawsuit. The Foundation could not have gone to court without their participation as plaintiffs. Thanks to them, it looks like we have ended a most outlandish and egregious Establishment Clause violation,” said Gaylor.

“We hope to report next month that this lawsuit has been fully settled,” added Barker, “and feel confident this rapid victory should help to squelch future such faith-based schemes in state governments.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation