The East Hartford Police Department’s recent swearing in of multiple Christian leaders as official police chaplains is highly problematic on several levels.
Government chaplains may only exist as an accommodation of a public employee when the government makes it difficult or impossible for the person to seek out private ministries, such as for armed forces personnel abroad or inmates in a prison. In the case of police departments, there is no such government burden. Police officers and department employees are free to seek out the church, pastor or priest of their choice for counseling or worship on their own time.
In fact, the separation between state and church demands that law enforcement agencies, when acting in their official capacities, may not proselytize or promote religion. Whether paid or volunteer, these chaplains and their religious mission have become an arm of the law.
No doubt, the chaplains are intended, at least nominally, to assist people of all faiths, but in fact they do not represent all citizens. In fact, 30 percent of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, according to Pew Research Center, and another 7 percent belong to non-Christian religions. Such individuals are either not going to have their counseling needs met by chaplains or are being sent the inappropriate message that they are assumed to be religious and expected to turn to religion in times of distress.
A nonbelieving employee or crime victim will not be comfortable dealing with a person who provides counseling or support from a religious point of view. Chaplains by definition view the world and its problems through the lens of religion and God, a view inapposite to nonbelievers.
The best approach for the East Hartford Police Department is to provide secular support services and to leave determinations on whether to seek religious support to individuals. East Hartford is a diverse community with ample opportunities for people of various faiths to seek religious solace or advice. The department must separate its mission from religion.
James Madison, the primary architect of our secular Constitution, aptly noted, “Religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.” The East Hartford Police Department needs to follow his advice and end the chaplaincy program.
Annie Laurie Gaylor is the co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit organization with more than 40,000 members across the country, including over 600 members in Connecticut.