The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking for a Wisconsin police department's overtly religious oath and code of ethics to be changed.
The West Allis Police Department's Code of Ethics has included the following line since at least 2013, a line that is part of the oath that the police officers take:
I will constantly strive to achieve these objectives and ideals, dedicating myself before God to my chosen profession . . . LAW ENFORCEMENT. (boldface added)
This Code of Ethics is also printed in the department's annual report. The code's language mirrors the State of Wisconsin's Administrative Code, which prescribes a law enforcement code of ethics that "shall be administered as an oath to all trainees during the preparatory course," except that the Wisconsin Administrative Code does not include the words "before God."
Altering a mandatory oath to require West Allis law enforcement officers to dedicate themselves "before God" is unconstitutional, FFRF asserts. There is no legitimate reason to add a religious phrase into a state-mandated secular oath. This insertion must be removed.
"Article VI of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from requiring any kind of religious test for an 'office or public trust,' which includes the position of police officer," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne writes to West Allis Police Chief Patrick Mitchell. "The U.S. Supreme Court has held that to require a religious oath is a violation of both the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution."
Besides requiring officers to take a religious oath, the inclusion of the modified Code of Ethics in the department's annual report also gives the appearance that all officers believe in one particular god. This is not only divisive and inaccurate—fully 23 percent of American adults are nonreligious—but also unconstitutional. The message assumes a common god. Imagine the consternation had the West Allis Police Department inserted "before Allah" into the Code of Ethics. It is equally inflammatory and inappropriate to add "before God."
Finally, administering the oath as it is currently written violates the Wisconsin Administrative Code, which requires that all trainees be administered the oath "as set forth below," indicating that amendments are not permitted.
"There are police officers who will not believe in the words of the oath and the Code of Ethics they are supposed to uphold," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "The use of religious language, in addition to being unconstitutional, forces such cops to be dishonest."
FFRF is asking for written assurances that the unnecessary and unconstitutional religious language will be removed from the West Allis Police Department's Code of Ethics. Doing so will protect all minority religious or nonreligious officers from potential embarrassment or discrimination and will also send a message that the West Allis Police Department equally values all officers and citizens, regardless of their personal religious or nonreligious beliefs.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a Madison, Wis.-based national state/church watchdog organization with more than 23,000 nonreligious members all over the country, including 1,300-plus in Wisconsin.
ROGER DALEIDEN is the Graphic Designer at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. He grew up in Wausau, Wis. He has been living in Madison since 1987. He graduated from University of Wisconsin-Stout with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1986 (Fine Art), and the received his Master of Fine Art degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1991. Roger has taught Art and Design courses for UW-Madison and also for Madison College. He has worked as a Graphic Designer for catalog companies, most recently Full Compass Systems, and as well as for newspapers, including The Capital Times. Some of his other interests include bicycling through our beautiful Southern Wisconsin landscapes, paddling down the lower Wisconsin River, sailing on our lakes and skiing at the local ski areas.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has asked a judge to declare a New Jersey county's millions of dollars in grants for church repair a violation of the state constitution.
FFRF and member David Steketee recently submitted their final brief in support of their motion for summary judgment in a lawsuit filed on Dec. 1, 2015. The suit seeks to protect the rights of New Jersey citizens to not be compelled to support religions with which they disagree.
Steketee, a taxpayer in Morris County, and FFRF are contesting grants to churches by the county's Historic Preservation Trust Fund. Since 2012, the board has awarded more than $4.6 million to such entities, which is more than 40 percent of the money disbursed by the fund.
FFRF's case relies on the religious aid prohibition in New Jersey's Constitution, which states that "No person shall . . . be obliged to pay tithes, taxes, or other rates for building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry, contrary to what he believes to be right or has deliberately and voluntarily engaged to perform."
FFRF's brief points out that the New Jersey Constitution prohibits the government from spending taxes to "repair any churches," and cites cases where the New Jersey Supreme Court and Appellate Court have enforced this provision, even under circumstances that are less clear. Morris County told the court that it didn't spend tax dollars to "repair" churches, but only to "stabilize, rehabilitate, restore, and preserve" them. "Constitutional obligations cannot be escaped with synonyms," FFRF answered. In addition, the county itself used the word "repair" to describe the challenged grants.
Morris County also argues that denying churches access to taxpayer funds would violate the churches' rights, but FFRF explained that this misses the mark. "The county may not prohibit the churches' free exercise of religion, but this does not mean Morris County must pay the churches' repair bills," FFRF asserts. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld state constitutional provisions very similar to New Jersey's, despite similar arguments against them.
FFRF has asked that the court grant FFRF's summary judgment motion, declare that the grants violate the New Jersey Constitution, prohibit Morris County from issuing similar grants in the future, and require the churches to repay the grants they improperly received. The court will hear oral arguments for the case on Oct. 13. Since Morris County has spent tax dollars on the exact thing the state constitution prohibits, FFRF is confident that it will prevail. With this victory, FFRF will ensure that Morris County taxpayers will no longer be forced to finance religious buildings.
The lawsuit is being handled by attorney Paul S. Grosswald. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew L. Seidel and Diane Uhl Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne are co-counsel. FFRF v. Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders, Case No. C-12089-15 is in the Chancery division of Somerset County in New Jersey state court. The judge assigned to the case is Margaret Goodzeit. FFRF's prior brief can be seen here.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nationwide nonprofit organization dedicated to the constitutional separation of state and church, with more than 23,000 members across the country, including almost 500 in New Jersey.