The city of McPherson recently received a letter from the Freedom from Religion Foundation asking it to cease its newly created police chaplaincy program.
The foundation claimed the program was a violation of church and state by exposing vulnerable residents to religious preaching and endorsing the Christian religion by association.
The McPherson City Commission stood up for the First Amendment Monday by announcing it would proceed with the program.
As Mayor Tom Brown eloquently stated during the meeting Monday, the First Amendment protects the freedom of religion and not the freedom from religion.
The words separation of church and state are not in the U.S. Constitution. It was a concept created later by Thomas Jefferson as an extension of First Amendments freedom of religion clause.
By limiting the government’s role in religion, it helps ensure that no one faith can impinge upon the rights of those of another faith. The court has extended these protections to those of no faith.
The First Amendment and the courts support of the separation of church and state was never meant to eliminate completely the interactions between faithful persons or faith-based organizations and government.
Congress has had chaplains since the meeting of the Continental Congress in 1776. The U.S. government has offered chaplains of varying faiths to its soldiers at home and abroad throughout its history.
Here’s what the U.S. Supreme Court said in the landmark case New Jersey case of Everson v. Board of Education, which are known as the “Everson principles.”
Neither the state nor the federal government can "set up a church"; pass laws that aid one religion, all religions, or favor one religion over another; force a person to attend or stay away from church or believe in any religion; punish a person for holding or professing religious beliefs; levy a tax, in any amount, to support any religious activities or institutions; or openly or secretly participate in the affairs of any religious organization or vice versa.
The McPherson chaplaincy program passes all the tests.
McPherson chaplaincy program is a measure of compassion not religion. The program is designed to recruit caring individuals of all faiths to offer voluntary counseling to individuals who desire it. The program does not endorse any one faith. It does not force a faith onto any individual. It does not tax anyone or use taxpayer dollars to pay the chaplains. It does not entangle the city in any specific faith or church.
Police officers see the worst our society has to offer. The offer of some comfort, regardless of the religious affiliation or the lack thereof, is the least we can offer the men and women who protect our community.
Extending this same counseling to those who have been the victims of violence or tragedy is an exercise in humanity and not a callous infringement of their rights. If a person does not feel comfortable speaking to a person of faith, they can say no to the counseling. Because no one is compelled to participate in the program, there is no violation of rights.
The McPherson chaplaincy program is based on national and international standards. It is similar to programs across the state and nation. Allowing the program to go down in hail of Constitution rhetoric would be a disservice to the other programs and set an alarming precedent for future Constitution tests.
Although the Freedom from Religion Foundation said it would not rule out a lawsuit, city officials have decided to stand strong on this issue. We put our support strongly behind our city leaders and hope they will continue to stand up for the First Amendment.
— Cristina Janney on behalf of The McPherson Sentinel Editorial Board