FFRF protests many police chaplains nationwide, including in Orlando


The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state/church watchdog, sent a letter and open records request to the Orlando Police Department (Fla.) on Nov. 3, objecting to the department’s chaplain program. The complaint is the latest in a series of objections over law enforcement chaplaincies the FFRF has lodged this year.

FFRF represents more than 1,000 Florida members, and 21,500 nationwide. FFRF’s chapter, Central Florida Freethought Community, directed by David Williamson, brought the Orlando violations to FFRF’s attention.

Orlando chaplains, as is typical, are required to be ordained ministers with experience as pastors, who counsel employees, employees’ families, and victims of crimes, and assist with death notifications and other police activities. Orlando’s chaplain program does have one distinct feature – a car with an “Orlando Police Chaplain” graphic displayed across the side. FFRF’s records request asks for documents relating to this car, as well as many other aspects of the chaplain program.

So far this year, FFRF has sent 14 letters of complaint about chaplaincies to police departments and sheriff’s offices across the country, as well as one fire department. This is a substantial increase from the number of letters sent on the issue in previous years, surpassing the past two years combined.

Some programs FFRF complained about this year are longstanding, but many cities and counties are launching new chaplain programs. Millville, N.J., swore in its first police chaplains in June. Police Chief Robert Manley, of Apopka, Fla. swore in pastors in February, reviving a discontinued chaplain program, saying that “he wanted to bring faith into the organization to help officers and their families cope with the stress of the job,” according to The Apopka Chief. Rochester, N.Y., kicked off a “Clergy on Patrol” program in September, sending members of the clergy on foot patrols with police officers with the alleged purpose being to improve law enforcement’s relationship with the community.

Some chaplain programs have other troubling elements, like chaplains delivering prayers at department ceremonies, or training law enforcement officers on subjects outside their expertise such as ethics and stress management. Some chaplains have contact with juveniles. A chaplain was photographed at a session of the Police Department’s “Police Explorers” program in Dunwoody, Ga., whose participants are ages 14-21. The job description for Rochester’s Clergy Response Team says that clergy “may volunteer in high schools with School Resource Officers.” And Millville’s chaplains made headlines in August for actually picking up and detaining children who had violated curfew.

The bulk of FFRF’s complaints have come from the South: three complaint letters have gone to Georgia, and four to Florida, so far this year.

Most chaplain programs employ only Christian pastors. Many programs do not even attempt to hide their Christian affiliation. The Laurens County, Ga., Sheriff’s Office and Reidville, S.C., Fire Department both posted bible quotes on their websites, which were removed after FFRF contacted the agencies. Still hosted on the Okaloosa County, Fla., Sheriff’s Office website is a video in which Sheriff Larry Ashley says he tells potential chaplains that the chaplaincy is “a ministry . . . similar to being a pastor of a church.”

Attorney Andrew Seidel, one of five FFRF staff attorneys, handled most of the chaplain complaints on behalf of FFRF. His letters explain that courts allow government-employed chaplains only as an accommodation where the government makes it difficult for people to seek out private ministries, as is the case with military service members or prisoners. Since there is no government-imposed religious burden on law enforcement officers or the public, the government does not need to provide chaplains for them.

“Favoring religious officers with free, on-the-job counseling while ignoring the needs of those of no faith is discriminatory,” Seidel notes. “If chaplains were adept at providing secular therapy, they would be therapists, not chaplains. There is no reason to think a nonbelieving employee would be comfortable dealing with a person who provides comfort from a religious viewpoint.”

FFRF objected to chaplains assisting with victims, instead of bona fide therapists. Seidel points out, “Community resources or licensed therapists who actually have certification in victim counseling should be the first resort for those vulnerable people, not members of the clergy.”

Seidel also noted that higher religiosity correlates to more crime and more violent crime.

There are few existing court decisions or laws governing law enforcement chaplaincies, which perhaps explains why agencies try to stonewall FFRF’s objections, maintaining that their chaplaincies are lawful. Orlando Police Chief John Mina emailed back the day after receiving FFRF’s letter, saying, “I have no intention of discontinuing our Chaplain Program,” but failed to cite any law or decision permitting it to continue.

Taking the law enforcement chaplain fight to court is likely the next step for FFRF.

“We turn to police departments for protection and enforcement of the law. Police should be there equally for everyone, regardless of religious or irreligious views. Police officers are typically armed, represent the power of the state and have authority to detain you, arrest you. This makes the unconstitutional alliance of religion with law enforcement particularly intimidating to a nonbeliever, a Muslim, a Jew or other religious minorities,” added FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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