End chaplaincy program, FFRF urges county in Ohio

Police officer prayer

An Ohio county prosecutor office’s chaplaincy program violates the constitutional separation of state and church, asserts the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

A concerned local resident contacted the state/church watchdog to report that Craig Burdick, a chaplain with the Licking County Prosecutor’s Office, delivered a religious invocation at the 2019 Newark Division of Police Awards. FFRF then requested public records related to the chaplaincy program. Several aspects of the program show a problematic promotion of religion.

For instance, the stated purposes are to “provide spiritual guidance and counseling to all members of the department, law enforcement agencies, and their families in times of need,” and to present a “field service ministry” offering “spiritual guidance” to the general public. The chaplains’ “creed” is also explicitly religious in nature: “Believing that God is the answer to man’s dilemma, the chaplain stands ready to bear witness to the forgiving love and redeeming power of God to all people confronted with crisis.” The program openly excludes all members of the community who are not ordained clergy. Tellingly, while on duty, chaplains are “not only a representative of their religious community, but also the Licking County Prosecutor’s Office.” And notably absent from the program’s rules are restrictions on chaplains proselytizing, participating in or even initiating religious exercises.

While it is admirable for community members to assist with death notifications and counseling, it is unconstitutional for the county to insert religion into these activities, FFRF contends. As a government representative, a volunteer must abide by the same constitutional restrictions as a government employee.

“Law enforcement agencies acting in their official capacities may not proselytize or promote religion,” FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne writes to Licking County Prosecutor Bill Hayes. “Paid or not, your chaplains are sponsored by the county. They are bound by the First Amendment like any other government employee, and your office is liable for their constitutional violations. Just as it would be inappropriate for a prosecutor to use their position to promote their personal religious beliefs, it is inappropriate for volunteer chaplains to do the same.”

The chaplaincy program is also unrepresentative. Nonreligious Americans are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population by religious identification, with more than one in four Americans currently identifying as religiously unaffiliated. These nonreligious residents are effectively prohibited from volunteering with the current program.

In 2018, FFRF filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a chaplaincy at the Wisconsin Department of Justice. In response, the DOJ replaced the religious program with a secular “Employee Support Team” that has dropped its ordination requirement and doesn’t assign its volunteers any religious duties. The best solution is for the Licking County Prosecutor’s Office to replace the chaplaincy program with a comparable secular community support program that is not exclusive to clergy and explicitly prohibits religious promotion on behalf of the county.

“A chaplaincy program is out of step with our times,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “And it repeatedly transgresses constitutional boundaries.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 32,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 800 members and a chapter in Ohio. FFRF protects the constitutional separation between state and church, and educates about nontheism.

Image via Shuttestock by LifetimeStock

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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