Subsidized Chaplaincies — One Victory, One Controversy (December 1995)

Consciousness has been raised in Contra Costa, California over public expenditure for chaplains by Foundation member Allene Harper, who successfully asked for the elimination of county-supported chaplaincy services at the county hospital. For budgetary reasons, a long-standing contract for hospital chaplains was eliminated this year.

The Contra Costa Board of Supervisors voted in July to adopt a $162,499 4-month contract for prison chaplains, and approved the full-year allocation of $206,132 in October. However, Harper and several other freethinkers in the Northern California area have educated their community.

Even the Contra Costa Times editorialized “Chaplains should be cut: Program inappropriate for county to fund” (July 28, 1995). The editorial ran just before the contract for chaplains at Merrithew Memorial Hospital expired:

“Taxpayers and county officials should not be in the business of providing religious counseling for anyone.

“When this four-month contract expires, it should not be renewed.

“Proponents argue that the chaplains aren’t there to convert, but to listen and comfort. If that is the case, then the county doesn’t need chaplains, it needs secular counselors . . . due to the continuing financial straits the county finds itself in, it can’t afford to avoid this issue any longer.”

The Foundation had also written County Administrator Phil Batchelor to back up Harper’s grievance, pointing out that the California State Constitution specifically prohibits any appropriation from a public body to a religious sect, church, creed or sectarian purpose (Art. XIII, Section 24).

The Sheriff’s department argued that state and federal law requires access to religion for inmates. Without the chaplains, asked Sheriff Warren Rupf, who would distribute some 44,000 bibles, Korans and other religious books, counsel inmates and keep track of religious volunteers?

The chaplaincies are funded by an inmate welfare fund financed through sales of snacks and cigarettes to inmates, and by commissions on jail phone calls. The contract with the Council of Churches pays for two fulltime Protestant chaplains and two fulltime Protestant interns.

The controversy has received coverage in the San Francisco Chronicle. Burt Bogardus, a Foundation member, told the Chronicle (Oct. 25, 1995): “The county appears to be saying that only Christians are criminals.”

The Contra Costa Times editorialized (Nov. 1, 1995 “Flawed county chaplain deal”) that the Board of Supervisors “should not have renewed its contract with the Council of Churches to provide chaplains for jail inmates without looking for alternative services.”

More than 300 clergy and other religionists already volunteer to serve inmates’ needs.

Harper campaigned successfully last year against religious invocations at the start of supervisors’ meetings. While the “battle is lost” over subsidizing jail chaplains, she adds, “the war is not over.”

Her next project, she says, will be moving polling places from church buildings.

“Hey, we’ve got to start some place.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation