FFRF objects to foot-washing by Indiana officials

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is objecting to top Indiana state officials taking part in a Christian foot-washing ceremony in their official capacities.

Employees from Gov. Mike Pence’s office, as well as Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann and her staff, sponsored and participated in a “foot-washing” ritual during office hours at the Shepherd Community Center in Indianapolis two months ago. Pence made an appearance at the center, too, shortly after the ceremony was completed. The rite was deeply religious. Sonna Dumas, director of the school associated with Shepherd, “a faith-based ministry,” commented to the Indianapolis Star that “the teachers told students about the biblical origins of the tradition in preparation for the event.”

The official involvement in the ceremony raises serious constitutional concerns.

“First, the state may neither require nor pay for its employees to participate in religious rituals,” FFRF Diane Uhl Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne writes in a letter to Pence. “Second, the state appears to endorse Christianity when its top executives, with their staff, sponsor and take part in a publicized, specifically Christian, religious ritual.” 

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that government offices may not appear to endorse religion, FFRF reminds the governor. State employees may not join in religious rituals while they are “on the clock.” The governor’s office may not spend taxpayer money on religious ceremonies, including paying employees to participate. The office’s endorsement of religion—and of Christianity in particular—turns non-Christian and nonreligious Indianans into outsiders in their own community. (Twenty-three percent of Americans, and 35 percent of millennials, don’t identify with any particular religion.)

As it is inappropriate and unconstitutional for government officials to sponsor and participate in religious rites, FFRF is seeking assurances from the Indiana governor that his office will not engage in this again.

“They’re stepping all over the Constitution,” quips FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a state/church watchdog group with 23,000 members nationally, including more than 300 in Indiana.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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