FFRF spars with Chicago PD over chaplaincy program

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent a follow-up letter to the Chicago Police Department requesting that it discontinue its chaplaincy program.

FFRF, a national state/church watchdog, originally contacted the deparment in May of 2017 asking the it to halt its imposition of prayer at official meetings, typically delivered by the police chaplain. A concerned department employee reported that officers are issued a command to participate in these prayers by removing their hats (“Officers, un-cover!”), and then are directed to put their hats back on following the prayers.

Additionally, the complainant reported that the department chaplains regularly use their government position to promote religion. For instance, one chaplain has admitted, “I look at my work as police chaplain as being pastor of the largest parish in the city of Chicago. I have the biggest flock, 12,000 or so along with their families, and another 5,000 retirees.”

FFRF’s most recent letter follows up on the department’s response with requests to take action on two specific issues that it addressed.

First, the Chicago Police Department provided assurances that “no orders will be given to remove hats during invocations or benedictions at mandatory CPD-sponsored events.” As noted in FFRF’s letter, while this may lessen the coercive nature of the prayer, it “does not remedy the regularly occurring constitutional violation of uniformed CPD chaplains delivering prayers at CPD-sponsored events. Including prayers at CPD events is itself unconstitutional.”

FFRF is requesting, again, that future CPD events and graduation ceremonies will not include prayers or other religious content.

Second, FFRF took issue with the CPD’s assertion that it has no power to stop its chaplains from promoting religion on a privately maintained website called “Police Chaplains Ministry.” Noting the unconstitutionality of government actors using their position to advance a religious message, FFRF requested that the CPD remove the appearance of department endorsement from the chaplains’ website.

“Regardless of how the Chaplains Unit is funded, the CPD holds the chaplains out as representatives of CPD in many ways, including the chaplains’ uniforms, badges, and email addresses, in addition to their involvement in CPD events and ‘being present on the street with officers in their daily realm,’” writes FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne in the most recent letter. “The CPD has not only the ability, but also an obligation, to stop its representatives from using their position with the CPD to promote religion.”

FFRF is requesting that all references to the department be removed from the Chaplains Ministry website and FFRF’s letter noted that a far simpler solution to ensure these violations are permanently remedied is to discontinue the chaplaincy program entirely. 

“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,” Jayne writes. “In the case of police officers, there is no significant government burden on free exercise. The CPD does not prevent its officers from attending their place of worship or speaking with their own religious ministers.”

“Citizens rely on law enforcement during some of the most vulnerable times in their lives and it is their sworn oath to protect every citizen,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The appearance or existence of religious endorsement by the CPD is divisive and exclusionary to the very citizens they serve.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 32,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 900 members in Illinois and a chapter in Chicago. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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