FFRF wins challenge to Wisconsin DOJ chaplaincy program (November 20, 2019)

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed suit on November 13, 2018, against then-Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel, challenging a statewide police chaplaincy program.

Schimel announced the chaplaincy program in mid-October 2018 while campaigning. The program became effective on Oct. 4, 2018, but had been in the works for at least a year prior to that.

Schimel claimed that the chaplaincy program was a “critical component” of the DOJ, and urged other state agencies to contact the DOJ staff to start their own chaplaincy programs. Six all-white men from Christian faiths, many conservative, were formally appointed DOJ chaplains. Although unpaid, the six agency chaplains were under the direction of a paid DOJ chaplaincy program coordinator and received training and reimbursement at taxpayer expense. Their explicit duties included providing consultation and spiritual guidance to DOJ employees and their families. The chaplaincies were integrated into DOJ programs, including new employee classes and orientation.

FFRF originally filed in Wisconsin state circuit court, asking the court to declare the program a violation of Wisconsin State Constitution, Article 1, Section 18, and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and to enjoin the DOJ from providing chaplaincy services. The case was then moved to Federal District Court and the defendant was updated to the newly elected Attorney General Josh Kaul.

The plaintiffs were FFRF, a Wisconsin-based national group of 30,000 members on behalf of its 1,400 Wisconsin members, and Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, FFRF’s co-presidents, in their capacity as state taxpayers and as FFRF lifetime members.

On November 20, 2019, FFRF and Attorney General Joshua Kaul jointly agreed to ask the court to dismiss the complaint after changes were made to the chaplaincy program that made it more inclusive to a wider range of volunteers. Now atheists and other non-believers are able to join as volunteers or receive more secular counseling.

The DOJ dropped the chaplaincy program in favor of what the DOJ terms an “Employee Support Team.” EST volunteers are not given any religious duties, but generally provide support services tailored to the criminal justice profession. Volunteer services include non-professional counseling to employees after critical incidents, assistance during death notifications, crisis response, and visits to sick or injured DOJ employees. A list of EST volunteers is made available to employees.

Freedom From Religion Foundation