The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking for a Wisconsin police department's overtly religious oath and code of ethics to be changed.
The West Allis Police Department's Code of Ethics has included the following line since at least 2013, a line that is part of the oath that the police officers take:
I will constantly strive to achieve these objectives and ideals, dedicating myself before God to my chosen profession . . . LAW ENFORCEMENT. (boldface added)
This Code of Ethics is also printed in the department's annual report. The code's language mirrors the State of Wisconsin's Administrative Code, which prescribes a law enforcement code of ethics that "shall be administered as an oath to all trainees during the preparatory course," except that the Wisconsin Administrative Code does not include the words "before God."
Altering a mandatory oath to require West Allis law enforcement officers to dedicate themselves "before God" is unconstitutional, FFRF asserts. There is no legitimate reason to add a religious phrase into a state-mandated secular oath. This insertion must be removed.
"Article VI of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from requiring any kind of religious test for an 'office or public trust,' which includes the position of police officer," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne writes to West Allis Police Chief Patrick Mitchell. "The U.S. Supreme Court has held that to require a religious oath is a violation of both the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution."
Besides requiring officers to take a religious oath, the inclusion of the modified Code of Ethics in the department's annual report also gives the appearance that all officers believe in one particular god. This is not only divisive and inaccurate—fully 23 percent of American adults are nonreligious—but also unconstitutional. The message assumes a common god. Imagine the consternation had the West Allis Police Department inserted "before Allah" into the Code of Ethics. It is equally inflammatory and inappropriate to add "before God."
Finally, administering the oath as it is currently written violates the Wisconsin Administrative Code, which requires that all trainees be administered the oath "as set forth below," indicating that amendments are not permitted.
"There are police officers who will not believe in the words of the oath and the Code of Ethics they are supposed to uphold," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "The use of religious language, in addition to being unconstitutional, forces such cops to be dishonest."
FFRF is asking for written assurances that the unnecessary and unconstitutional religious language will be removed from the West Allis Police Department's Code of Ethics. Doing so will protect all minority religious or nonreligious officers from potential embarrassment or discrimination and will also send a message that the West Allis Police Department equally values all officers and citizens, regardless of their personal religious or nonreligious beliefs.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a Madison, Wis.-based national state/church watchdog organization with more than 23,000 nonreligious members all over the country, including 1,300-plus in Wisconsin.