The Freedom From Religion Foundation has ensured that the Wisconsin Department of Health Services will not entangle itself with religion when sponsoring events.
The Aging and Disability Resource Center of Southwest Wisconsin (ADRC) sponsored a dementia workshop on June 15 exclusively for faith community leaders. Religion was advertised in a flyer of the workshop, which indicated that Pastor Carolyn Kennedy led the 15-minute opening worship and that it was held in the Barneveld United Church of Christ in Barneveld.
In a letter sent to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, FFRF requested assurance that future Aging and Disability Resource Center events would not include religious rituals. FFRF also asked that any future events the center sponsors be open to all community leaders, not just clergy.
Both the U.S. and the Wisconsin Constitutions prohibit government sponsorship of religious messages. FFRF reminded the Department of Health Services that scheduling a clergy-led Christian worship service in a Christian church during a government-sponsored workshop indicates that the department prefers and endorses Christianity over all other faiths and nontheists.
“Government officials can worship, pray and participate in religious events in their personal capacities,” wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne. However, he explained, “officials may not provide credibility or prestige to religion by including prayer in government-sponsored events.”
They may not schedule worship services as part of official events either. Holding government-sponsored events open only to “faith community leaders” in a Christian church featuring a Christian worship service excludes non-Christian citizens. This includes almost one-quarter of American adults who don’t identify with any religion at all.
The Department of Health Services responded on July 26 to FFRF’s request that future Aging and Disability Resource Center events be entirely secular and open to all members of the community. The department agreed that those resource centers should not prohibit any interested community leader from attending its informational events.
“The ADRC did not maintain objectivity in regards to co-hosting the event with the Barneveld United Church of Christ,” writes the Department of Health Services in its response to FFRF. “The ADRC has been notified of this oversight and instructed to be mindful in the future to maintain objectivity.”
Additionally, FFRF was informed that Aging and Disability Resource Center leadership would receive a reminder of their obligation to remain neutral in matters regarding religion at an Aug. 2 directors meeting.
“It’s important that all leaders of the community are given equal opportunity to partake in events that concern the health of Wisconsin residents,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Religion is exclusionary by nature and we’re glad the department and its Aging and Disability Resource Centers have taken steps to make sure all faith and nontheist leaders are welcome to its workshops.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a Madison-based national nonprofit organization with more than 29,000 members and chapters across the country, including more than 1,200 in Wisconsin and a chapter in the state, Kenosha Racine Atheists & Freethinkers (KRAFt). FFRF’s purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.