FFRF objects to Ohio city’s chaplaincy program


The Elyria Police Department’s recently established police chaplaincy is discriminatory and unconstitutional, warns the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

FFRF has written a letter to Chief Duane Whitely after an Elyria, Ohio, resident reported that Pastor Jonathan Casbohm has been hired to serve as a police chaplain for the department. Police chaplaincies are unconstitutional, FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian points out to the sheriff in a recent letter.

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. Chaplains are intended to lighten a government-imposed “burden” on religious exercise. The Elyria Police Department, however, does not place any burden on employees or the public’s religious exercise, so there is no need for the department, a taxpayer-funded government agency, to provide chaplains. The employment of chaplains, in this case, constitutes a government endorsement of religion, which violates the Constitution.

“It is concerning that chaplains are meant to counsel law enforcement officers and their families,” Harootunian writes. “There are almost certainly officers who are not Christians. They should not be encouraged to compromise their beliefs and use religious support services.”

Many police departments defend their chaplaincies by emphasizing the often laudable secular services chaplains provide. However, FFRF contends, if chaplains were adept at providing secular therapy, they would be therapists, not chaplains. Police officers deserve qualified secular counselors, not volunteer preachers, to help them deal with their inherently stressful jobs.

It does no good to claim that clergy can meet the needs of nonbelievers and believers of other faiths. This is simply not true. Chaplains cannot simply set aside their religion in order to assist a nonbeliever, and are often unwilling to even try to do so. Chaplains view the world and its problems through the lens of religion and a god, a view inapposite to nonbelievers. Employing a Christian chaplain not only makes the department vulnerable to an expensive lawsuit, it also makes certain employees outsiders in their own workplace.

“All in all, this program discriminates against department employees by providing chaplains who are only equipped to handle the needs of some employees, alienating nonbelievers and non-Christians,” Harootunian adds.

FFRF is asking the department to discontinue the chaplain program and leave determinations on religious support to individuals.

“Religious chaplains inject a sectarian coloration into what should be a secular police department that is welcoming of all citizens,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The Elyria Police Department shouldn’t be favoring and promoting religion in this way.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 30,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 800 members in Ohio and a chapter in Cleveland. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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