Freedom From Religion Foundation Sues Wisconsin Attorney General for Limiting Chaplaincy Program to Clergy

MADISON, Wisc. — The two atheist leaders of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) have filed a lawsuit against the attorney general of Wisconsin to challenge the creation of a chaplaincy program for employees at the state Department of Justice (DOJ). The organization is dissatisfied that the program is limited to clergy members and not also secular mental health professionals.

“The DOJ chaplaincy program, premised on the conceit that only religious counseling be provided, belies the fact the number of religiously unaffiliated adults in America has grown by nearly 20 million persons in recent years, and the number continues to increase,” the lawsuit, filed on Tuesday by Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, reads.

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel announced the creation of the chaplaincy program in October, outlining that it is a means to provide a support system to DOJ employees who encounter traumatic situations in the course of their work.

“The law enforcement and criminal justice profession has witnessed ever-increasing demands and potentially dangerous situations that require even temperament on the part of special agents and other employees so that they can perform their duties professionally while also addressing personal issues and challenges that may stem from such circumstances,” an outline of the program reads.

“Department staff, along with their immediate families, are impacted during crises and other stressful situations that can have a profound effect on their attitudes, perspectives and personal well-being,” it explains.

The DOJ policy mandates that chaplains “be ordained or licensed clergy in good standing by a faith group at the time of appointment and shall maintain such standing for the duration of their active service.” Chaplains are also required to take courses within their endorsing agency that include stress management, death notification, suicide, substance abuse, and sensitivity and diversity.

There are currently six chaplains who have availed themselves to serve DOJ staffers who need counsel or hospital visitation, all on a volunteer basis. However, as all the chaplains are clergy members and identify as Christians, FFRF takes issue with the program as it believes that the government has established an impermissible promotion of religion over non-religion.

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“Mental health professionals who are not ordained or licensed clergy, in good standing by a faith group at the time of appointment, are absolutely disqualified from participating in the DOJ chaplaincy program,” FFRF writes in its complaint.

It asserts that the program is unconstitutional because it “inappropriately applies a religious test as a qualification for appointment as a chaplain” and “does not include neutrally-appointed counselors or therapists chosen without respect to religious belief or clerical status.”

Barker and Gaylor further argue that the chaplaincy program wrongfully excludes any employees who do not identify as religious and might prefer to speak with a secular counselor rather than a clergyman.

“Favoring the needs of religious DOJ employees offends the Establishment Clause by sending a message that non-religious persons are outsiders,” the lawsuit reads.

FFRF is seeking a declaration that the chaplaincy program violates the Establishment Clause, as well as an injunction preventing Schimel and the DOJ from offering the faith-based services to employees.

The DOJ says that it is reviewing the legal challenge.

As previously reported, former U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster once exhorted—just 33 years after the writing of the Constitution, “[L]et us not forget the religious character of our origin. Our fathers were brought hither by their high veneration for the Christian religion. They journeyed by its light, and labored in its hope. They sought to incorporate its principles with the elements of their society, and to diffuse its influence through all their institutions, civil, political, or literary.”

“Let us cherish these sentiments, and extend this influence still more widely, in full conviction that this is the happiest society which partakes in the highest degree of the mild and peaceful spirit of Christianity.”

He also later declared in 1843, “If God and His word are not known and received, the devil and his works will gain the ascendancy. If the evangelical volume does not reach every hamlet, the pages of a corrupt and licentious literature will. If the power of the gospel is not felt throughout the length and breadth of the land, anarchy and misrule, degradation and misery, corruption and darkness will reign without mitigation or end.”

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