A concerned East Hartford resident reported that on March 8, multiple Christian religious leaders were sworn in as official police chaplains for the East Hartford Police Department. Alongside the program, the East Hartford official Facebook page promoted the program with a post reading:
How do you remake a town into a community?
Well, you start by carefully adding four reverends and one pastor as East Hartford Police Department chaplains, bringing the face of God to the community through prayer and religious devotion.
God and acceptance is universal, so we support all religions.
Please join me in congratulating the newest volunteer members of the EHPD! Goodness knows we need their prayers!
Police chaplain programs are unconstitutional, FFRF emphasizes.
“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,” Equal Justice Works Fellow Kat Grant writes to the East Hartford Police Department Police Chief Scott Sansom. “For instance, it may be difficult for military service members to find a place of worship while on mission in a foreign country or for an inmate in a prison to find a way to worship. Chaplains are meant to lighten a government-imposed ‘burden’ on religious exercise.”
In the case of police departments, there is no significant government burden on religious free exercise. Paid or not, such chaplains are sponsored by police departments. They are bound by the First Amendment like any other government employee, and the East Hartford Police Department is liable for their constitutional violations. Government and religion do not mix. Community resources or licensed therapists who have certifications in counseling should be the first resort for vulnerable people, law enforcement and their families, not members of the clergy.
The East Hartford Police Department chaplaincy program is also vulnerable to a discrimination lawsuit. No doubt the chaplains intend, at least nominally, to assist people of all faiths. But the police department serves all East Hartford citizens regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof. As many as 37 percent of Americans are non-Christians in today’s United States, including the nearly 30 percent who now identify as religiously unaffiliated.
Chaplains cannot simply set aside their religion in order to assist a nonbeliever — and are often unwilling to attempt to do so.
It is additionally inappropriate and unconstitutional for a town’s official social media pages to be used to post religious messages. By displaying Christian messages on its official Facebook page, the town of East Hartford conveys a message to all non-Christian residents that they are disfavored members of the community. A simple disclaimer that the town “supports all religions” is meaningless when the chaplains are all Christian, and the rest of the post and event are explicitly Christian in nature. The promotion of Christianity through the town’s official social media suggests that both the government and local law enforcement prefer Christianity over all other religions and nonreligion.
FFRF is therefore requesting that the East Hartford Police Department discontinue the chaplaincy program, and that the city remove all divisive social media posts to respect the diversity of its citizens. The best approach for the East Hartford Police Department would be to provide secular support services and to leave determinations on religious support to individuals.
“Nonreligious citizens, as well as non-Christians, should not be made to feel excluded or like outsiders in their own community,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor comments. “Belief in a deity is not ‘universal,’ and as we like to point out at FFRF: Nothing fails like prayer.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 40,000 members across the country, including more than 400 members in Connecticut. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.