Iowa City Police chaplain program contested by national, local secular groups

Photo by Matty Ring via Flickr.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is raising constitutional objections to the Iowa City Police Department’s chaplaincy program, which the group argues is a violation of the legal barriers between church and state.

Controversy arose when the Iowa City Police Department’s chaplaincy program, started by former Police Chief Sam Hargadine in 2013, sought applications for volunteers on Aug. 9.

As noted in the original press release:

The Iowa City Police Chaplain Corps is a volunteer service consisting of vowed men and women who support and assist the community. Chaplains will interact with victims, their families, and officers. Chaplains maintain a presence at the Iowa City Police Department through monthly chaplain meetings, attendance at department events, ongoing training, and riding with officers on patrol.

Applicants had to be “recognized clergy from within their denomination” and offer approximately 10 hours of service each month if their applications were accepted after passing a background check. Volunteer responsibilities include: providing spiritual needs within the community, keeping liaison with clergy in the community, visiting sick or injured ICPD employees, offering officer benediction upon request and assisting with suicide incidents and death notifications.

While the program is no longer seeking applicants, it has recently come under fire from national and local secular groups.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national secular organization based in Madison, Wisconsin, describing itself as a “state/church watchdog.” The foundation has close to 30,000 nonreligious members, “including many in Iowa,” according to a new release about the Iowa City program. They became involved after “a concerned Iowa City resident” (who has not been named) contacted the organization about the matter. After reviewing the complaint, the the foundation concluded the program was a breach in the wall separating church and state on the city level.

Taking up this matter on behalf of the foundation is staff attorney Ryan Jayne, who started work with the organization in 2015 and became Diane Uhl Legal Fellow in September of that year. Jayne contacted current Iowa City Police Chief Jody Matherly and wrote the following message in a letter dated Oct. 24:

Law enforcement agencies acting in their official capacities may not proselytize or promote religion. Paid or not, chaplains are sponsored by the department. They are bound by the First Amendment like any other government employee, and your office is liable for their constitutional violations. The best solution to avoid this liability is to discontinue this government-sponsored religious chaplaincy.

According to the letter:

It does no good to claim that clergy can meet the needs of nonbelievers of other faiths. This is simply not true. Chaplains cannot simply set aside their religion in order to assist a nonbeliever, and are often unwilling to even try to do so. Chaplains view the world and its problems through the lens of religion and god, a view inapposite to nonbelievers.

For further comment, Little Village contacted Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers (IAF), a non-profit, member-run organization dedicated to providing a “community for non-believers” in the Hawkeye State. The majority of the organization’s membership resides in central Iowa “with a decent amount spread out in Iowa City,” according to IAF Press Officer Jason Benell.

As a representative of IAF, Benell said he agreed with the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s position, noting how the application posting specifically seeks a religious qualification.

“If that isn’t immediately discriminatory, I don’t know what is,” Benell said.

“A public institution should represent the entire public that supports it, not just a specific sub-section that feels entitled to such representation. Being religious is not synonymous with being a good community member, nor is being nonreligious synonymous with being unable to provide counseling and assistance.”


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In the letter to the ICPD, Jayne concluded the best approach is to offer secular services and leave religious determinations to individuals.

“At a minimum, the chaplain program must not exclude nonreligious applicants, and the Department must take appropriate steps to ensure its chaplains do not promote religion in any way while acting on behalf of the Department,” Jayne said.

When Iowa City Public Information Officer Sgt. Scott Gaarde was contacted by Little Village, he said he was unaware of the complaint and later verified the department received the complaint the day the letter was sent. According to Gaarde, “this issue is being researched” and once a decision is made “appropriate steps will be taken.”

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