As a Result of FFRF's Federal Lawsuit
(Madison, Wis.) The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a state/church watchdog, has ended a major First Amendment violation in Indiana this week. In May, the Foundation challenged an unprecedented chaplaincy post devoted to ministering to staff of a state department. The lawsuit was dropped this week following assurance from the State of Indiana that the position had ended and the chaplain was off state payroll.
Rev. Michael Latham was hired last year to encourage a faithful environment in the workplace," in the words of his state job description. Advertised as the first such public position in the country, the post included a goal of forging a network of volunteer chaplain counselors for Indiana Family & Social Services staff. The post imposed an unlawful religious test for public office (requiring a minister to fill the position), and involved purely religious activities, the Foundation noted.
In August, following a lot of bad press, FSSA announced that it would discontinue the program, but the case was delayed due to a bizarre wrinkle. The minister was placed on disability pay, leaving the Foundation lawsuit up in the air.
This week, the Foundation received written notice that not only was the chaplaincy program eliminated, but that all state benefits for Latham were terminated on Sept. 23. Both parties then agreed to dismiss the case.
The lawsuit resulted in two exposes by the Indianapolis Star's Robert King, revealing that in nearly 18 months, after $120,000 of tax money spent, the program had little to show for the time and money spent. Latham was the state's highest-paid chaplain, although he lacked the requisite college degree and other credentials required of state hospital chaplains paid half his salary. Latham kept his fulltime ministry in Fort Wayne, and did not work out of a state office in Indianapolis. Latham had been a high-profile supporter of the Republican candidacy of Mitch Daniels, now governor. Latham gave a benediction at one of Daniels' inaugural events.
In addition to the Foundation's four Indiana state taxpayer-plaintiffs, Craig Gosling, John Kiel, Sean O'Brien and Diana O'Brien, the Foundation in July had also added state employee Jonathan Kraeszig, a FSSA program director, who had been offended by the views promulgated at an office workshop engineered by Latham.
"We're grateful to the four Indiana members who joined the Foundation as plaintiffs, and to Mr. Kraeszig, as a state employee, for being party to this lawsuit. Thanks to them, we have ended an over-the-top Establishment Clause violation," said Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-presidents.
"This is a significant victory for the separation between religion and government that will have national ramifications. The government should not be ministering to government employees. That is not accommodation, that is the establishment by government of religion."
The federal lawsuit was in the federal courtroom of U.S. District Judge David Hamilton.