A nationally-known atheist activist group is demanding that a central Kansas city shut down its police chaplaincy program after it received a complaint from an area resident.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wisconsin, recently sent a letter to city officials in McPherson, Kansas, claiming that the existing chaplaincy program violates the U.S. Constitution.
“McPherson should not endorse the religious beliefs of chaplains by calling them to preach to vulnerable people,” the letter reads. “People impacted by a crime or accident, whether victims, perpetrators, or witnesses, may need counseling. However, it is not appropriate for the government to hold up religious figures as their official agents of comfort and counsel to people, especially those that have recently experienced a trauma and are psychologically vulnerable.”
The police chaplaincy program, which is in its infancy stages, seeks to provide a source of hope and encouragement to officers while on the job. Ministers also often accompany police when officers must notify residents of the death of a loved one. Police Chief Robert McClarty told reporters that he has only heard praise for the program since its inception.
Co-founder Dick Reynolds of the First Presbyterian Church of McPherson said that the service is completely voluntary, and therefore, officers are not forced to obtain Christian counseling if they do not wish to receive it.
“Any communication, any possible connection between officers and members of the community, is voluntary,” Reynolds told the Fort Leavenworth Lamp. “It is meant to be a voluntary resource. That is the way it should be. There is no proselytizing.”
However, Andrew Seidel, an attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, says that the police chaplaincy program amounts to government endorsement of religion, which he believes is unconstitutional.
“This is really about people wanting to uphold the Constitution,” he explained. “When we have chaplains riding around with officers, that looks like an endorsement of religion, which a violation of the First Amendment. It is all about protecting the First Amendment and upholding the Constitution.”
Seidel stated that the program should be secular in nature and not Christian.
“If the police department wants to provide these services to their officers, it should be of someone of not a religious belief basis,” he said.
While the Foundation has stated that it may take legal action against the city if it does not meet its demands, at this time, officials are still reviewing the letter and discussing the situation as they ponder the best course of action to take.
The city states that it plans to hold a meeting about the matter today and Chief McClarty will issue a public statement on where the police department stands on the issue. Likewise, Mayor Tom Brown, who supports the police chaplaincy program, told reporters that he is “optimistic” that the city will choose to keep the program running.
“It’s just the way we are here in Kansas,” local resident Donna Lehner told KSN-TV. “That’s all there is to it. We try to help people.”