FFRF refutes Christian apologists in defending Calif. city’s ending of sectarian prayer

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation is demolishing the arguments of First Liberty Institute, a Christian nationalist law firm, in defending a decision by the city of Carlsbad to end sectarian chaplain prayer.

FFRF has learned that the Carlsbad City Council (Calif.) recently received a letter from First Liberty Institute after City Manager Scott Chadwick tried to rein in two religious leaders that the city has been allowing to act as official chaplains. The two were preaching and promoting their personal religious beliefs to city employees and leading prayer at city-sponsored events.

According to the First Liberty letter itself, the police chief asked JC Cooper on March 13 to lead a prayer at the Carlsbad Police Department Awards Ceremony. The prayer was explicitly sectarian, delivered “In Jesus’ name.” A City Council member reportedly objected to opening this city-sponsored event (meant to honor department employees’ achievements) with a Christian prayer. Chadwick then decided that if the chaplains wanted to deliver prayers, these prayers would have to be nonsectarian. The chaplains have since reportedly stopped delivering invocations at city-sponsored events in protest.

First Liberty’s letter claims that Chadwick “misunderstands the law concerning public chaplains and invocations,” but it is First Liberty that misstates the law and is misleading the city in an attempt to fundraise off of their gullible supporters by painting the chaplains as martyrs.

First, First Liberty turns the law upside down by relying on Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a government employee’s prayer because it viewed that prayer as a “personal religious observance.” The Carlsbad city manager did not prohibit the chaplains from engaging in sectarian prayers as personal religious observances, but rather prohibited them from delivering sectarian prayers as part of their official duties as chaplains, i.e., as representatives of the city. This distinction makes all the difference.

Even more fundamentally, First Liberty’s ludicrous attempt to convince the city of Carlsbad that it must favor Christianity over other religions leads to an important lesson: The simplest and best solution is for the City Council to stop allowing local religious leaders to act as chaplains and spread their personal religious beliefs on behalf of the city at all.

“The city does not have to employ chaplains or allow local religious leaders to act as chaplains, and in fact doing so only divides residents along religious lines, as the current situation demonstrates,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Carlsbad Mayor Keith Blackburn. “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.”

And FFRF reminds the mayor that our Constitution’s Establishment Clause dictates that the government cannot in any way show favoritism toward religion or coerce belief or participation in religion. As the U.S. Supreme Court has put it, the First Amendment requires “governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.” Moreover, government-sponsored prayer “has the improper effect of coercing those present to participate in an act of religious worship,” as the court has stated.

Plus, allowing city representatives to deliver exclusionary, sectarian remarks invites discrimination lawsuits. As the incident mentioned above shows, the Carlsbad chaplains are only interested in advancing their own personal religious beliefs — to the extent that they refuse to perform any duties if they cannot use their government role to proselytize. However, the city serves all Carlsbad regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof; 37 percent of Americans are non-Christians, including the nearly 30 percent who now identify as religiously unaffiliated. Instead, licensed therapists who have certifications in counseling should be the first resort for vulnerable people, law enforcement, emergency responders and their families.

FFRF is urging Carlsbad officials to put an end to any city-sponsored chaplaincies.

“We commend the city for defending the First Amendment and urge it to stand firm in defense of the separation between state and church,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “First Liberty’s ludicrous arguments should be dismissed out of hand.”

FFRF’s letter can be read in full here.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 5,200 members and two chapters in California. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism. 

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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