Congressional State and Local Chaplains

Not even chaplains are safe from the chilling world the separationists are trying to create, as seen when a Sacramento atheist brought a lawsuit seeking to declare congressional chaplains unconstitutional. This man might be dismissed as a renegade crank, except for one thing. The man is Michael Newdow, the same man who single-handedly succeeded in removing God from the Pledge of Allegiance and who now objects to Congress's use of chaplains, because he sees it as governmental endorsement of religion. The framers of the Constitution, however, didn't intend to preclude all government involvement with religion. And they specifically had no problem with chaplains in Congress. We don't have to speculate about that, for chaplains have ministered to members of Congress and led the morning prayer since 1789-on the federal payroll, no less.

But Newdow filed suit to stop the practice 213 years later, in the summer of 2002, alleging it was improper for the House and Senate to pay their chaplains $148,000 and $130,000 per year, respectively. Newdow's objection was not limited to the money, however. He said the very presence of the chaplains in Congress was unconstitutional, irrespective of their salaries. In response to the suit, twenty-two members of Congress requested the court to dismiss the action.

This was not the first instance of such a case. In 1983, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Marsh v. Chambers that paid congressional chaplains do not constitute a violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. In his opinion for the court, Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote: "Clearly the men who wrote the First Amendment religion clauses did not view paid legislative chaplains and opening prayers as a violation of that Amendment, for the practice of opening sessions with prayer has continued without interruption ever since that early session of Congress. Moreover," he continued, "This unique history leads us to accept the interpretation of the First Amendment draftsmen who saw no real threat to the Establishment Clause arising from a practice of prayer similar to that now challenged The delegates did not consider opening prayers as a proselytizing activity or symbolically placing the government's official seal of approval on one religious view The Establishment Clause does not always bar a state from regulating conduct simply because it harmonizes with religious canons."

Chaplains for state legislatures sometimes encounter opposition as well. On January 11, 1999, the Minnesota House of Representatives voted 72-60 to order chaplains not to perform "denominational" prayers. Instead, they were required to deliver only "non-denominational" prayers out of respect for the religious diversity of the House. Obviously, the action was misnamed, because it wasn't really aimed at preventing "denominational" prayers, but Christian prayersprayers to the generic "God"-were permitted while those referring to "Jesus" were prohibited. What set off certain lawmakers, who had been considering such a ban for several years, was the performance by a parochial school choir that included references to Jesus. Representative Peggy Leppik described the songs as "particularly discomfiting ... for some people."

Congress and state legislatures are not the only places chaplains run into difficulties. In Portland, Oregon, police chaplain John Elms found that just performing his job was too controversial for some to handle. The Portland Police Bureau fired Elms after six years of voluntary service with the bureau, allegedly for proselytizing to police officers who had come to him for spiritual support. Apparently, Elm's major offending act was his distribution of 1,500 God's Word for Peace Officers Bibles, a Bible designed for officers following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Elms explained that he decided to pass the Bibles out following a trip to New York City, where he met many victims' families.

And in Ferndale, Michigan, a volunteer chaplain, Pastor Tom Hansen, came under attack because he was an outspoken critic of the homosexual lifestyle. He argued against the city's plans for a downtown gay pride festival, and at council meetings reportedly called homosexuality "an abomination to the Lord." But Hansen denied that opposing homosexuals was the focus of his ministry. When he met with local residents belonging to Soulforce, a nationwide group that urges religious leaders to be tolerant toward homosexuals, he told them that "I believe Christ died for them just as He did for me" Hansen said his opinions on homosexuality never came up in his work with prisoners. "I don't talk to the prisoners about that," said Hansen. "I'm here if they want help It is immaterial to me if they are gay. If they ask me, I pray for them and give them a little Bible that the Gideons provide to us for free." Nevertheless, homosexual groups demanded that the city terminate Hansen, and Soulforce charged that Hansen's views amounted to "spiritual violence" to homosexuals, bisexuals, and transgendered persons.

Ferndale police captain Tim Collins said that Hansen had not expressed "any discrimination of any type to anyone." The American Family Association said that it would sue the city in a civil rights action if it dismissed Hansen, and Gary Glenn, president of the America Family Association in Michigan, said that being chaplain doesn't mean you forfeit your constitutional rights. "I can't help but marvel at the reported sight Monday night when the so-called'tolerance' and non-discrimination' crowds so clearly demonstrated their intolerance for Pastor Hansen's sincerely held religious views, and demanded that he be discriminated against and fired for daring to express those views."

On October 28, 2002, after a four-hour meeting filled with public comments concerning the Hansen issue from the estimated one hundred residents present, all but five of whom spoke in favor of Hansen, the Ferndale City Council passed a 622-word resolution condemning Hansen. The council repudiated Hansen's "callous, outdated and hostile statements about the lesbian and gay community" and described them as "an affront to the community." The council said it found Hansen's "statements to be offensive to the tenets of diversity and the principles of freedom, acceptance, and respect for humanity that make the United States of America the great country that it is."

In the resolution the council also recognized Ferndale's "lesbian and gay community as a legitimate, important, and beneficial part of Ferndale." In a final stroke of authoritarian grandeur, the council ended its resolution with a directive to the police department to caution all police chaplains that "their actions as a police chaplain should be consistent with the beliefs contained within this resolution." What else could that last statement mean, but an order that police chaplains who don't approve of homosexuality keep their opinions to themselves? Apparently the council, which paid lip service in the resolution to the constitutional free speech rights of all city employees, did not grasp the utter inconsistency of its order with its affirmation of free speech.

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