Madison Police Department's Role In Buddhist Retreat Is Problematic, Says Americans United

Wisconsin City's Endorsement Of Zen Program Raises Constitutional Concerns, Civil Liberties Group Asserts

The Madison, Wisc., Police Department may not encourage officers to attend a Buddhist retreat, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In a July 8 letter to Chief of Police Richard Williams and Captain Cheri Maples, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn warned police officials that their plan to encourage officers to attend a "Mindfulness Retreat" run by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh presents constitutional problems.

Lynn noted that Hanh's website states that the point of the retreat is to promote "engaged Buddhism" and that nothing in the retreat materials indicates that the program is non-sectarian.

"We understand that Captain Maples has studied under Thich Nhat Hanh and is an ordained lay member of his Zen Buddhist order," Lynn wrote in the letter. "She has explained that 'mindfulness' has helped her deal with the rigors of police work. While Captain Maples is entitled to hold these beliefs, the Constitution forbids her from using her government position to assert beliefs that advocate or endorse religious points of view."

Lynn cited several Supreme Court rulings that forbid government to endorse religion and asked the city to take steps "to ensure that Captain Maples and other government officials heed these constitutional guidelines." (The letter was co-signed by Americans United attorney Kerry Kornblatt Jowers.)

According to news media reports, the program, scheduled for next month, may also include firefighters, health-care workers and educators.

Lynn issued a statement insisting that the city must drop its endorsement of any religiously based training.

"Just as the city may not promote Christianity, Judaism or Islam, it may not advance Buddhism," Lynn said. "I understand that police officers face a significant amount of stress, but the city must find some other way of helping them cope. Encouraging them to go to a religious retreat doesn 't pass constitutional muster."

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.