A proposed city-sponsored chaplaincy program in Harvey, Ill., is unconstitutional and should be dropped, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Municipal officials announced recently that the city will appoint at least six chaplains to act as liaisons between the police and members of the community. According to news accounts, the chaplains will open city meetings with prayers, offer comfort to crime victims and remind Harvey residents of "life's true meaning."
In a Sept. 17 letter to Harvey Mayor Eric Kellogg, attorneys with Americans United warned that the program, as currently structured, raises serious church-state concerns.
"The chaplaincy program endorses religion because it communicates a message that life problems necessarily call for 'spiritual guidance,'" wrote AU Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser and AU Madison Fellow Sandi Farrell. "While many people do choose to handle personal difficulties by consulting with a pastor or other clergy member, many others deal with crises in a variety of other ways that do not involve religion or consultation with religious leaders."
Kellogg has told reporters that he believes government should be more involved with religion. In a Chicago Tribune article, he complained about the lack of organized prayer in public schools, asserting that "children are denied spirituality and lead stunted lives"
Kellogg went on to say that he believes "it's the responsibility of the schools and the government to provide knowledge in this area."
The Americans United attorneys warned Kellogg that the chaplaincy program would favor some religions over others, noting that the religious and philosophical beliefs of all city residents cannot possibly be represented by six or eight chaplains. They noted that the courts have upheld government-funded chaplains only in limited circumstances, such as the military or in Congress, where the practice was deemed historical.
Luchenitser and Farrell advised Kellogg to restructure the program to avoid church-state pitfalls.
"Instead of a chaplaincy program, a referral system could be created by which residents who request help are referred to counselors who can help meet their particular needs," they wrote. "Such a referral list could include both religious and secular services, and counselors would be able to volunteer to be a part of the referral system rather than being chosen by the city. Such a program would both accomplish goals of the chaplaincy program and comport with constitutional requirements of government neutrality toward religion."
Americans United for Separation of Church and State is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.