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Chaplaincy and the Law: Evangelism

The other day a firefighter told me he wanted to start a chaplaincy program in his department in order to reach all the firefighters so they would be Christians. His sole motivation, it seemed, was to win people to Christ. A while back a chief at another department told me when there was a house fire, he wanted his chaplain there with his Bible. After pausing to think, I suggested I would rather see his chaplain there with blankets, food and water, medical help, and information on how to contact the Red Cross and other resources. He could offer to help the family or community understand what the firefighters were doing. And then, if it seemed right and the family desired it, he could pray with the family.

Why hold back on evangelism? Consider the case of a department here in South Carolina that had a pretty good chaplaincy program… at least until a few chaplains used it as a platform for evangelism. First responders complained, and now the program has been reduced considerably. The chief doesn't want to deal with it. He doesn’t want to take the risk of having chaplains anymore. I have heard stories like this one repeated time and again across this nation.

While as a Christian I have deeply held beliefs concerning taking the gospel message to the world, I realize that as government chaplains (paid or volunteer) we operate in a unique place in a nation where evangelism in the workplace can invite lawsuits. Many people are concerned about the separation of church and state, and don’t want to see the state directing matters of faith. As chaplains, we work for the state. And not everyone (or even every chaplain) shares the same faith. Where can we find guidance on sharing our faith as public safety chaplains? Sometimes things are not clear cut. But here are some guidelines to help keep your chaplaincy programs from being dropped, scaled back, or taken to court.

Ethics and Evangelism

The Canon of Ethics for Law Enforcement Chaplains (from the International Conference of Police Chaplains) states: "The Law Enforcement Chaplain serves in an ecumenical capacity. He or she is not to use the chaplaincy to proselytize or to preach in order to win adherents to his or her faith group. It shall be assumed that the Law Enforcement Chaplain shall be familiar with the beliefs and practices of the various faith groups represented in his or her Department. It shall further be assumed that the Law Enforcement Chaplain is familiar with the requirements of honesty, integrity, humility, compassion, decency, brotherhood, humanity and love that are overarching concepts among faith groups."

We in the South Carolina Public Safety Chaplains Association have adopted a canon of ethics with very similar wording.

How Court Rulings about Public Prayer Relate to Evangelism

The Supreme Court ruling in Chambers v. Marsh, addressing paid chaplaincy and prayer, may also apply to evangelism. The Justices stated that while they weren’t necessarily concerned with the content of the chaplain’s prayer (upholding freedom of speech), they wanted chaplains not to use public prayers to either proselytize or denigrate the faith of others. Chaplains were also instructed not to speak on behalf of everyone listening (“Father, we ask you for…”) since that would cause issues related to the establishment clause (that the government is not to establish a religion).

When Is Evangelism Religious Harassment?

Religious harassment in violation of Title VII occurs when employees are subjected to unwelcome statements or conduct:that is based on religion, and is so severe or pervasive that the individual being harassed reasonably finds the work environment to be hostile or abusive, and that there is a basis for holding the employer liable.Evangelism crosses the line when the employee is able to make the reasonable argument that he or she is being harassed. While people may look at the same situation differently, what is clear is when someone doesn't welcome that expression of faith, they can easily construe it as harassment.

As government chaplains we walk the First Amendment’s line between the free exercise clause and the establishment clause. The violation of either invites lawsuits. While, like anyone else, we can share our faith in the workplace, it is not necessarily our main work as public safety chaplains. Our faith and our positions mean we will walk with people during some of their worst times of their lives. Sometimes we are welcome to share why we do what we do, and sometimes we don’t. A good rule of thumb is not to share our faith unless we are asked or invited. That keeps people from feeling coerced. To violate these principles puts your chaplaincy at risk for lawsuits and may lead to push back and closed doors for all of us. Chaplain Chris M. Wade

Vice President

South Carolina Public Safety Chaplains Association

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