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Chaplaincy and the Law: Religious Tests for Chaplains

In the next few weeks, you will be hearing a lot about our new nominee to the Supreme Court. In an election year such as this, it will be a heated debate. You may even hear some members of congress question the religious beliefs of the nominee. But did you know that it is illegal for the government to accept or reject a person for employment based upon his or her religious beliefs? I’m sure all the members of Congress interviewing this person will know that and frame their questions in such a way to put a squeeze on the nominee yet leave themselves some wiggle room.

In McDaniel v. Paty, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a prohibition of the State of Tennessee that said ministers could not serve as elected officials (SCOTUS 1978). In this case McDaniel (a local minister) was running to be a delegate to the 1977 Tennessee State Constitutional Convention. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that prohibiting him from office because of his faith and ultimately his vocation violated both the first and fourteenth amendments. The Justices said the state law that forbade ordained ministers from elected office was unconstitutional. You cannot use a person’s faith to reject or accept them for government work. This is also in line with Article VI of the U.S. Constitution which states “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” At this time, though, the South Carolina State Constitution (Article VI, Section II) still includes a religious test. It is very doubtful to this chaplain (and others) that it would pass muster with the U.S. Supreme Court, if challenged, in light of previous court rulings.

Believe it or not, public safety chaplains cannot be selected for their positions based on religious beliefs. To do so could show favoritism or bias from the government towards any one religion. This is a good thing. This protects the members of the department from having their chief hire his or her minister if they are not fully qualified. That could look like favoritism and ultimately be an infringement of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. This was one of the points made in the case Voswinkle v City of Charlotte (WDNC 1980). In that case the Charlotte Chief of Police hired a chaplain from Providence Baptist Church with no selection process.

Chaplains must be selected by a neutral selection process and evaluated on the training they have received, the years of experience they have, and applicable training for the job they are going to do. This is why I encourage all public safety chaplains not to rest exclusively on their ministerial credentials for this secular job. They must have training in counseling, firefighting, law enforcement, medical, conflict resolution, suicide, crisis intervention, etc. How they get this training and when is up to the chaplain and the department. But they must have it.

The public safety chaplain job is a secular job that happens to be done by people of faith. Being done by people of faith, in my opinion, is what makes the job so great. We bring a hope and a different perspective that is only found through faith in something spiritual and higher. But there are protections in place that prevent infringements of the First Amendment. While at times they can seem overly restrictive, usually they are there to protect all of us people of faith, including future Supreme Court Justices.

In Him,

Chaplain Chris M. Wade


South Carolina Public Safety Chaplains Association

  1. SCOTUS. Supreme Court of the United States. 1978. Mcdaniel V. Paty, 435 Us 618 - Supreme Court 1978 - Google Scholar. 76-1427.,41&as_vis=1.

  2. Voswinkel V. City of Charlotte, 495 F. Supp. 588 (W.D.N.C. 1980). 495 (U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina 1980).

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