The Freedom from Religion Foundation wants La Crosse police to discontinue using chaplains, arguing they are an endorsement of religion that entangles church and state.
The organization, a nonprofit that promotes that separation, claims that all chaplains are Christian expect for one rabbi and that there is no need for the department to offer their services to officers.
“Paid or not, chaplains are sponsored by the city,” the foundation’s attorney wrote in a letter to police.
Police Chief Ron Tischer declined to comment until the letter is reviewed by city attorney Stephen Matty, who said he is researching the issue.
“We take all concerns seriously,” Matty said.
Since 2001, police chaplains in La Crosse have voluntarily responded to emergencies and tragedy alongside local law enforcement to give support to victims and families, to provide death notifications, help victims contact family members or their clergy and locate community resources.
They also offer confidential guidance and a listening ear to law enforcement officers struggling with personal or work-related issues.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation got involved when it was contacted by a local resident who is not a member of the department, attorney Patrick Elliott said.
The foundation claims the police department could be liable for constitutional violations and a lawsuit because it discriminates against officers who are not Christian and may have to pay for counseling.
“Favoring religious adherents with free, on-the-job- counseling and ignoring the needs of those of non-Christian faiths or no faith is discriminatory,” Elliott states. “It does no good to claim that chaplains can meet the needs of nonbelievers … if chaplains were adept at providing secular therapy they would be therapists, not chaplains.”
Chaplains cannot set aside their religion to help a nonbeliever, according to the foundation, because they view the world and problems through “the lens of religion and a god.”
Chaplains in 2012 provided 8,784 hours of coverage to police while receiving only 28 calls, suggesting they are riding often with officers. The foundation argues there are no safeguards to guarantee employees are not being proselytized or pressured to use chaplains.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation suggests a secular counselor would be able to serve the department and “would be actually licensed to do so.”
Elliott requests a written response from the police department and is hoping for voluntary compliance before deciding the foundation’s next step.
Head chaplain the Rev. Mark Clements was unavailable Thursday but stated in an e-mail that the U.S. Supreme Court has validated volunteer chaplaincy programs.
"A careful look at our local chaplaincy program demonstrates that it is in line completely with the requirements of that case and is therefore constitutional," he said.
Clements said during a 2006 interview that chaplains are there to support officers, who suffer from highe-than-average levels of stress, high blood pressure, divorce and alcoholism.
"When they want to talk, when they want to ask, then I'm there with a listening ear," he said.
Chaplains also perform weddings, baptisms and funerals for family members of law enforcement officers.
"We really go out of our way to let (law enforcement members) know there are people that care about you and we're here to serve you and we appreciate you and what you do," Clements said.