A California police department’s chaplain program is constitutionally impermissible, asserts the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
A concerned Rio Vista resident has informed the state/church watchdog that the police department has recently “revitalized” its police chaplaincy program. The department recently posted on Facebook and Nextdoor that it had sworn in Father Mervin Concepcion, a Catholic priest, as a police chaplain. And a couple of days after that, the department posted that it had sworn in two additional chaplains, Harold “Hank” Fontecilla and Diana Graham-Fontecilla. The department indicates it is using departmental resources to coordinate future training for these chaplains.
Police chaplaincies are unconstitutional, FFRF informs the Rio Vista Police Department.
“Law enforcement agencies acting in their official capacities may not proselytize or promote religion,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Police Chief Jon Mazer. “Paid or not, chaplains are sponsored by the department. They are bound by the First Amendment like any other government employee, and your office is liable for their constitutional violations.”
The Rio Vista Police Department is also vulnerable to a discrimination lawsuit, FFRF emphasizes. The department serves all Rio Vista citizens regardless of their religious affiliation (or lack thereof).
A significant portion of the local population is nonreligious, since 34 percent of Solano County residents identify as such.
It does no good to claim that chaplains can meet the needs of nonbelievers and believers of other faiths, FFRF underscores. If chaplains were adept at providing secular therapy, they would be therapists, not chaplains. There is no reason to think a nonbelieving employee would be comfortable dealing with a person who provides comfort from a religious viewpoint. Chaplains cannot simply set aside their religion in order to assist a nonbeliever — and are often unwilling to even try to do so.
Government chaplains may only exist as an accommodation of a public employee’s religious beliefs when the government makes it difficult or impossible to seek out private ministries, FFRF points out. In the case of police departments, there is no significant government burden on free exercise.
For all these reasons, the best solution is to discontinue the government-sponsored religious chaplaincy. The best approach by the Rio Vista Police Department is to instead provide secular support services and to leave determinations on religious support to individuals.
“As recent surveys have confirmed, populations around the country are becoming increasingly non-Christian and nonreligious,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The Rio Vista Police Department needs to police itself better and stop anointing chaplaincies that push religion on police officers and the public.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 35,000 members and several chapters across the country, including nearly 5,000 members in California and a local chapter, the Greater Sacramento Chapter of FFRF. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.