The city of McPherson is consulting with its legal counsel after it received a letter Monday from the Freedom From Religion Foundation requesting it cease its police chaplaincy program.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national non-profit organization. It says its purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.
Andrew Seidel, the organization's staff attorney, said in the letter the foundation had received a complaint about the chaplaincy program. The foundation would not release the name of the person who made the complaint, but Seidel said the person was from the local area.
The McPherson Police Chaplaincy program aims to provide support for officers in their daily work, as well as counseling for individual civilians in traumatic situations.
The letter suggests the chaplaincy program would infringe on non-believers' rights by exposing both police officers and civilians to unwanted interactions with the police chaplains.
“McPherson should notendorse the religious beliefs of chaplains by calling them to preach to vulnerable people. People impacted by a crime or accident, whether victims, perpetrators, or witnesses, may need counseling. However, it is not appropriate for the government to hold up religious figures as their official agents of comfort and counsel to people, especially those that have recently experienced a trauma and are psychologically vulnerable,” the letter said.
In a phone interview, Seidel said the Wisconsin-based foundation would not rule out litigation to resolve the issue, but said foundation officials hope to resolve the issue amicably through communication and education.
“This is really about people wanting to uphold the Constitution,” he said. “When we have chaplains riding around with officers, that looks like an endorsement of religion, which a violation of the First Amendment. It is all about protecting the First Amendment and upholding the Constitution.”
Both McPherson City Administrator Nick Gregory and McPherson Police Chief Robert McClarty were hesitant to speak about the issue until the city's legal counsel could review the letter. Gregory said it would likely be next week before the city produces a formal response.
McClarty said he has only received positive feedback from his officers since the implementation of the program.
Chaplaincy program co-founder Pastor Dick Reynolds of First Presbyterian Church of McPherson, said he did not wish to comment on the letter specifically, but did speak to the general policies of the program.
The program is based on similar police chaplaincy programs across the state and standards created by the International Police and Fire Chaplain's Association and Homeland Terror Chaplaincy Network, Reynolds said.
The McPherson Police Chaplaincy program is in its infancy, but Reynolds said the program is completely voluntary.
Both pastors currently involved in the program, Reynolds and Martin Coon of King's Hiway Baptist Church, are volunteers. Coon was unavailable for comment as of press time.
The Standard Operating Protocol that has been developed for the program stipulates the counseling offered by the pastors is voluntary for both officers and local residents. Reynolds said he did not think the program has forced religion onto anyone.
“Any communication, any possible connection between officers and members of the community is voluntary,” he said. “It is meant to be a voluntary resource. That is the way it should be. There is no proselytizing. The Standard Operating Protocol is very specific.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation was recently involved in another issue involving religious freedom in Buhler. The foundation complained about a cross on the city of Buhler's official seal. The city of Buhler eventually agreed to remove the cross and redesign the seal.