McPherson A program allowing volunteer chaplains to work with police will be permitted in McPherson despite a complaint from a national group that it violates the constitutional requirement for separation of church and state, Mayor Thomas Brown said.
Brown read a three-page statement to the McPherson City Commission Monday explaining that his discussions with the city’s attorney convinced him the program was constitutional. The program, which has not yet started, will allow volunteer chaplains to counsel officers and be present when families are notified of tragedies, The Hutchinson News reported.
The city was told last week by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an advocacy group based in Wisconsin, that the program was legally “problematic” and the city should not allow it. The foundation said it had received a complaint from a McPherson resident.
“Based on a legal review, I am confident that the city is constitutionally permitted to establish a police chaplaincy program,” Brown said in the statement. “Similar programs exist throughout the nation and have been legally approved in the past. Therefore, I intend to continue down the path of creating a Police Chaplains Program and I also fully intend to comply with all legal requirements in its establishment and operation. City staff has been instructed accordingly.”
Andrew Seidel, an attorney with the foundation, said Monday he hadn’t reviewed Brown’s response.
“There are some serious issues with this program, particularly their blindsiding people with religious counselors when they may or may not want them,” Seidel said. “If they’re fixing these things or straightening out the confusion that’s arisen over the program, we’ll take it from there.”
Commissioner Michael Alkire said the board supports the mayor, who has oversight of the police department.
Brown said in his letter that the program meets a three-prong test set up under a 1971 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Those requirements include that the program has a secular purpose, advancing religion is not its “primary effect,” and it doesn’t create “an excessive entanglement between church and state.”
The program “provides voluntary counseling to both officers and citizens who have interacted with law enforcement, but only if requested by the individual,” he said
Chaplains will be prohibited from proselytizing and must provide counseling “to people of all religions, and those with no religion at all, in a secular manner unless the individual wants to talk about their religious or spiritual needs.”
And Brown said the chaplains will be under direct control of the police, not their denominations, and it will be clear chaplains are not representing their personal religious traditions
Brown said the foundation’s complaint will help make the program stronger, “because we’ll go through it with a fine-toothed comb” to ensure it complies with the law.