FFRF protests Iowa City chaplaincy program

1IAiowa1The Freedom From Religion Foundation is raising constitutional objections to the Iowa City Police Department’s exclusively religious chaplain program.

A concerned Iowa City resident contacted FFRF to report that the department sent an email titled, “Iowa City Police accepting Police Chaplain applications.” The email stated that applicants “must be recognized clergy from within their denomination.”

Religious police chaplaincies are unconstitutional, FFRF informs the Iowa City Police Department. 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 meant to lighten the government-imposed “burden” on religious exercise. The department’s workplace does not place any burden on the ability of employees to practice their religion, so there is no need to provide chaplains for them. Employing chaplains who promote religion, even on a volunteer basis, demonstrates endorsement of religion by the department, which violates the Constitution.

“Law enforcement agencies acting in their official capacities may not proselytize or promote religion,” FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne writes to Iowa City Police Department Police Chief Jody Matherly. “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 best solution to avoid this liability is to discontinue this government-sponsored religious chaplaincy.” 

Many police departments defend their chaplaincies by emphasizing the often laudable secular services chaplains provide. However, FFRF contends, there is no reason to impose a religious test on the department’s counselors, requiring them to be “recognized clergy,” if promoting religion is not part of their expected duties. 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.

The Iowa City Police Department is also vulnerable to a discrimination lawsuit due to its actions, FFRF informs the police chief. The department serves all Iowa City citizens regardless of their religious affiliation (or lack thereof). A significant portion of the population is nonreligious: 23 percent of adult Americans and about 35 percent Americans under 30 are not religious. It’s difficult to see how religious chaplains could serve their needs.

“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 Iowa City Police Department shouldn’t be favoring and promoting religion in this way.”

The best approach by the department would be to provide secular support services and to leave determinations on religious support to individuals. At a minimum, FFRF advises, the chaplain program must not exclude nonreligious applicants, and the Iowa City Police Department must take appropriate steps to ensure that its chaplains do not promote religion in any way while acting on its behalf.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national state/church watchdog organization that has almost 30,000 nonreligious members, including many in Iowa.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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