Lately, it seems like every week we read about another Christian in America being told by his (or her) employer and/or the courts that he either has to do something that goes against his religious convictions (e.g., photograph a same-sex wedding ceremony) or must stop doing something that he *thought* was protected under religious freedoms in the Constitution (e.g., posting a Bible verse on a personal whiteboard). When the case goes to court, as often as not, the judge rules that one’s religious liberty is overruled by the hurt feelings of a minority and their vocal — often militant — activists. (Well, that is the effect, anyway.)
Last month, you many have caught wind of a case involving a Tulsa, Oklahoma, police officer who was ordered to attend an event at the local mosque. When he objected to the assignment, citing religious reasons, he was punished. It went to court, and the panel of judges on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals finally ruled against him. Sounds like another case of unconstitutional, anti-Christian bigotry, right? I mean, how can a Christian be forced by his employer to attend a mosque, right? But, there is more to the story, so let me back up and start over….
Several years ago, the Islamic Society of Tulsa organized a “Law Enforcement Appreciation Day” to be held at a local mosque to thank the Tulsa Police department (TPD) for its work protecting and investigating threats against the mosque. As it has for thousands of community events over the years, roughly 10% of which were “at religious venues or institutions affiliated with religious faiths”, the department planned to send representatives from all shifts. They were expected to politely mix with Muslim attendees who may want to tell them about Muhammad, the Qur’an, and their beliefs. When it looked like TPD wasn’t getting enough volunteers, the order went out that each shift must send at least two officers and a supervisor or commander.
Captain Paul Fields, a conservative Christian, objected on religious grounds. In an email to both superiors and subordinates (but addressed to his Major), Fields explained:
“I have no problem with officers attending on a voluntary basis; however, I take exception to requiring officers to attend this event. Past invitations to religious/non-religious institutions for similar purposes have always been voluntary. I believe this directive to be an unlawful order, as it is in direct conflict with my personal religious convictions, as well as to be conscience shocking….
[F]orcing me to enter a Mosque when it is not directly related to a police call for service is a violation of my Civil Rights.”
He also could not in good conscience order any similarly-minded subordinates to go. However, it would later be pointed out that Fields’ comments regarding sending others was about constitutionality, so it was a legal rather than a specifically religious objection.
Deputy Police Chief A. Daryl Webster responded, emphasizing the need for good community relations and a desire to avoid possible legal repercussions due to “disparate treatment”. More to the point, he countered Fields’ claim regarding “calls for service”, saying that these sorts of community policing events are just as much part of the department’s mission as public servants. Furthermore,
“[Officers are] not required to participate in any religious ceremony, make any profession of faith, or express opinions on or sympathy with any religious belief system. They are simply expected to meet with members of the public who have expressed a desire to meet with them at a place of lawful assembly.”
Webster also reminded Fields of the potential consequences for him personally and for department discipline, if he disobeyed orders, and urged him to reconsider. In the end, Fields refused to attend or send anyone else from his shift to the event. Despite this, there ended up being sufficient volunteers from the other eight shifts and no one had to be ordered. Following a quick Internal Affairs investigation, Fields was suspended for 2 weeks, demoted, and “reassigned to less desirable duties.”
Captain Fields, feeling he had been the victim of religious discrimination and other constitutional violations, filed a lawsuit dubbed Fields v. City of Tulsa, though the primary defendants are Police Chief Chuck Jordan and Deputy Chief Webster. First it went to the district court, which ruled against Fields. His counsel from the American Freedom Law Center (AFLC) appealed the decision, which is how it ended up at the 10th Circuit Appellate Court.
Fields claimed that the “Attendance Order” and the “conduct of the event conveyed an official endorsement of Islam,” thereby violating the Establishment Clause. The courts disagreed. The defendants pointed out that Webster advised the Society early on to make the discussion of any topic discretionary. This was reflected in event flyers, announcing a “Casual Come and Go Atmosphere”, with opportunities (upon request) to tour, observe, talk and learn about Islam. Fields maintained that the event’s occurrence on a Friday (i.e., Islam’s holy day), dominated by religious discussion and encouragement to purchase books & pamphlets, constituted proselytization, which made it unlike other such events. (There was also the fact that the Islamic Society had hosted Shariah-adherent, anti-Western speakers, like Imam Siraj Wahhaj.) The courts disagreed, stating that none of the “proselytizing” activities were required, and efforts to understand a religion or promote tolerance cannot be deemed a violation of the Establishment Clause.
To be honest, I’m sort of ambivalent about these issues. I can understand Fields’ concerns, especially if he felt pressured by his superiors to fully engage with the Muslim leaders and/or attendees. He also may have felt that the Muslims would be somewhat aggressive, which could be *quite* uncomfortable for a (presumed) minority of non-Muslim attendees. But, the court makes good points, too. Remember, though, Fields’ main concern was not so much attendance per se — though he was reluctant to do so voluntarily himself, and I’m not sure I agree with his reasons — but the questionable constitutionality of being ordered to attend such an event and what he felt was an implied endorsement of Islam.
What is equally of interest and perhaps more disturbing to me has to do with the second part of the suit, involving Freedom of Association and Free-Speech Retaliation. According to the Tenth Circuit’s analysis:
“Fields contends that the City, Jordan, and Webster violated his right to freedom of association by punishing him for objecting to the Attendance Order, which, he claims, compelled an association contrary to his religious beliefs. This claim fails because there was no interference with his freedom of association….
[Fields] does not assert that he has been prevented from engaging in any association. His complaint is that he was being forced to associate with the Islamic Society. But the Attendance Order did not require him to attend the event, much less join the Islamic Society or endorse its faith or message in any way.”
This seems clear to me, as well. But, the other part of the lawsuit claims that “the city’s ‘reason for imposing punishment, or at least the reason for the severity of the punishment, was the religious nature of Fields’ objection to the order.'” According to Robert Muise of the AFLC,
“We have argued throughout this case that Capt. Fields was summarily punished for simply raising and asserting a religious objection to the order mandating attendance at the Islamic event, and that such discriminatory treatment violates the First and 14th Amendments. Yet, inexplicably, the 10th Circuit refused to address this main issue on appeal, claiming that it was not raised below.”
I certainly understand (and generally agree with) Fields being punished for disobeying a direct order and for the manner in which he publicized his objections. But, the extent of his punishment may not have been necessary to make the point his superiors felt needed to be made.
“The appellate court further noted that ‘there is evidence in the record that would support [Fields’] assertion. Some statements by TPD officials suggest that at least part of the motive for punishing Fields was that he posed a religious objection to the order and refused to attend the mosque event on religious grounds.’ Yet, the court refused to address the issue on appeal, claiming ‘that it was not preserved in the district court.’ Instead, the court avoided this central issue and simply held, as did the district court, that the order ‘did not burden Fields’ religious rights because it did not require him to violate his personal religious beliefs by attending the event….’
It is impossible to square the court’s opinion with the briefs and the record presented on appeal.”
This matter really should be addressed, and it seems either lazy or suspicious that the appellate court didn’t take it up.
David Yerushalmi, co-founder of the AFLC, added:
“The evidence is overwhelming that the city and its senior police officials wanted to make an example of Capt. Fields by harshly punishing him, a Christian, for objecting on religious grounds to an order compelling attendance at an Islamic event.”
My assessment is that Fields may have a case regarding the severity of his punishment, assuming the AFLC can get the courts to address it. The rest, I’m not so sure. But, this mess could have been avoided if:
a) the Police Chief had rescinded the Attendance Order and made it voluntary again (as Jordan admitted in his deposition); or,
b) a religious exemption was made for the Attendance Order; or,
c) the Major in charge of Fields’ division had ordered the requisite officers & supervisor to the event and Fields’ punishment had not included permanent demotion (which I suspect is the part deemed unnecessarily severe); or,
d) Fields had not included subordinates in his email, had lodged a formal complaint with his superiors and the state, but then proceeded to do his best to assign representatives from his shift who had no religious objections.
All of this having been said, I do have to wonder — and the AFLC and others have also brought this up — how things might have gone differently if a Muslim officer was ordered to attend such an event at a Christian church or, “worse” yet, at a Jewish center or temple. (Of course, Jews don’t normally proselytize, but evangelical Christians do.) Given the history of disdain and hostility between Muslims and Jews, would the powers-that-be have made a religious exemption for a Muslim officer? If not, would the politically-correct courts have let them get away with it?