In April 2006, the newly-formed Fellowship of the Christian Centurions (the Centurions), a peer support group created specifically for law enforcement officers, sent flyers to law enforcement agencies in the state of Wisconsin. The advertisement offered the officers an opportunity to discuss issues unique to them, but from a religious perspective. This included discussions on impacting others for Christ and on Christ’s impact in their lives. The flyer’s primary purpose, however, was to invite officers to the group’s kickoff seminar, which featured then Milwaukee Police Chief Nannette Hegerty and former Green Bay Packer John Anderson.
The Centurions’ mission left an impression on Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, Jr. Upon receiving the flyer, he arranged a meeting with the group’s founders, George Papachristou, a former City of Milwaukee police officer, and Randy Melang, a lay minister. Sheriff Clarke and the group leaders met for over an hour, culminating with an invitation to address the officers in person.
The first presentation occurred at the Sheriff’s Department leadership conference. Attendance was mandatory for all deputies with the rank of sergeant or above. The Sheriff spoke first. He announced that he would be making upcoming promotions to the rank of captain and distributed written material that included a quotation from the Bible. The handouts listed the qualities a leader should look for in his inner circle – one of which was “people of faith.”
Approximately one hour after the Sheriff’s speech, one of the Centurion organizers addressed the deputies with remarks that included: “Civil government was God’s idea. The first several verses of Romans 13 tell us He established government and that people in authority are ministers of God assigned to promote good and punish evil.”
Another Centurion affiliate distributed invitations to the organization’s kickoff event at Elmbrook Church and made available copies of a book on Christian faith entitled “Putting the Pieces Back Together; How Real Life and Real Faith Connect.” After the conference, the Sheriff arranged for additional presentations at the Department’s mandatory roll calls. Despite complaints from other employees, the Centurions made presentations during 16 roll calls between May 9 and May 16, 2006, during which they distributed the flyers and books featured at the leadership conference.
A Muslim and a Catholic deputy sheriff, along with the Milwaukee Deputy Sheriff’s Association, sued the County, alleging a violation of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The federal Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the deputies and the Association, and ruled the endorsement of the Centurions unconstitutional.
The Court began by describing the purpose of the “Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment, which “sets forth a principle of government neutrality. It prohibits the government from promoting a point of view in religious matters or otherwise taking sides between religion and religion or religion and non-religion.” The Establishment Clause, the Court found, prohibited the Sheriff’s actions:
“The Centurions offered peer support, but also sought to foster discussion on how the officers could ‘impact others for Christ’ and on Christ’s impact in their lives. This presents a problem for the Sheriff because the Establishment Clause prohibits the government from promoting or affiliating itself with any religious doctrine or organization. During the Centurions’ initial presentation at the leadership conference, Mr. Melang referenced Romans 13 from the Bible, which, according to him, ‘tells us that Gods established government and that people in authority are ministers of God assigned to promote good and punish evil.’ He also stated that ‘the same God who ordained authority inspired a book and sent a counselor that promises to give us guidance on how to navigate life’s road.’ Following the speech, the Centurions made available a book entitled ‘Putting the Pieces Back Together; How Real Life and Real Faith Connect.’ In light of the speaker’s comments during the presentations, one can argue that the Sheriff should have taken affirmative steps to avoid the appearance of endorsement. Instead, he promoted this perception earlier in the conference when he circulated a handout in which he underlined ‘people of faith’ as a quality leaders should look for when building their ‘inner circle.’ Notably, this occurred during a discussion on promotions to the rank of captain.”
The Court found the approach of the Centurions constitutionally impermissible: “The Centurions gave a heavily Christian-focused presentation at a mandatory conference for government employees, and the Sheriff subsequently invited them to present at mandatory roll calls during work hours, granting them unfiltered access to a captive audience of subordinates. At each roll call, they were personally introduced by the Sheriff’s command staff and were permitted to distribute additional Christian-focused literature. Even more telling was the Sheriff’s refusal to cease the presentations after some of the deputies complained of the Centurions’ proselytizing. He took no steps to disentangle himself or the Department from any of the religious messages, and his actions, at the least, appeared to place the Centurions in the same category as the other ‘partnering’ organizations, like Johnson’s Bike Company – all of whom presumably received the Department’s approval.”
The Court was careful to limit its opinion: “We do not suggest, however, that religiously-affiliated groups are always constitutionally barred from working with or speaking to government employees. Rather, we limit our analysis to the facts of this case, where an authority figure invited a Christian organization that engaged in religious proselytizing to speak on numerous occasions at mandatory government employee meetings. A reasonable observer would have been well aware that the Sheriff did not extend such privileges lightly. Most other organizations that received similar access shared a common attribute: The Sheriff had expressed an interest in partnering with them. Indeed, it would be difficult to interpret the Sheriff’s actions as anything other than endorsement.”
Milwaukee Deputy Sheriffs’ Ass’n v. Clarke, 588 F.3d 523 (7th Cir. 2009).
This article appears in the February 2010 issue