President Donald J. Trump is continuing his trend of appointing people with troubling records on religious freedom to positions of power and prominence.
The latest is Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who said during a radio interview this week that he’ll be joining the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in June as the assistant secretary of the Office of Partnership and Engagement. The Washington Post reports the position acts as a liaison between DHS and local police departments – “likely pressuring them to enforce the Trump administration’s tough new crackdown on illegal immigration.”
No announcement about Clarke’s appointment has been made by the federal government, but a source told The Post that Clarke’s hiring has been announced to DHS employees.
Clarke has been a controversial figure in recent years due in large part to his inflammatory comments about immigrants, Black Lives Matter, the role of law enforcement, marriage equality, Democratic leaders and more. New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait went so far as to call Clarke “an actual fascist.”
But it’s Clarke’s views on church-state separation that concern Americans United. We’ve been aware of him since 2008, when we participated in a legal battle involving the sheriff.
Ten years ago, Clarke was forcing his deputies to attend mandatory meetings that included presentations by the Fellowship of Christian Centurions (FCC), a group formed by an evangelical Wisconsin church. Some of the messages offered by FCC included discussion of how officers could “impact others for Christ" and an assertion that God "established government and that people in authority are ministers of God assigned to promote good and punish evil."
Clarke persisted in having FCC proselytize to the department even after two deputies complained. The Milwaukee Deputy Sheriffs' Association eventually filed a lawsuit on behalf of the two deputies to stop the proselytization.
Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, arguing Clarke’s actions were an unconstitutional act of religious coercion and government showing favoritism for one faith over others. “Government officials can’t impose their religious beliefs on employees,” AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said at the time. “Sheriff Clarke’s job is to uphold the law and the Constitution, not undermine it.”
Later that year, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s ruling that Clarke’s actions were unconstitutional.
Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, seen here speaking at the 2016 Republican National Convention, has troubling views on religious freedom.
Clarke also has espoused the view that religious beliefs can be used to justify discrimination. During a 2015 Fourth of July appearance on TheBlaze, a radio network launched by conservative radio personality Glenn Beck, Clarke assailed the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision that legalized marriage for same-sex couples. He went so far as to urge listeners to revolt violently.
“The next time in your state the federal government comes in and tries to put a church or a bakery or a pizza place out of business because they want to live by their religious conviction,” he said. “When I talk about pitchforks and torches, you need to get down there, surround that business and dare the federal government to come in and close it. That’s the revolution I’m talking about. It has to start in the states.”
Clarke and Trump likely are on the same wavelength on a hardline approach to immigration enforcement that targets people based on their religious beliefs. Among Clarke’s suggestions were increasing patrols of Muslim neighborhoods to search for “hotspots” and “radicalization”; he suggested these patrols may have prevented the 2015 San Bernardino terror attack.
Aside from troubling views on religious liberty, Clarke has been embroiled in a number of controversies and legal battles. A big one involves the Milwaukee County Jail that he oversees. It was investigated following four deaths there last year – including the death of a baby born while the imprisoned mother was left unattended and kept shackled during labor and the death of a man with mental health problems who died of dehydration after he was deprived of water in his cell for a week.
Sadly, it’s no surprise Trump would consider appointing someone who’s no friend of church-state separation – after all, he’s already surrounded himself with the likes of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and education adviser Jerry Falwell Jr., Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and more.
That’s why we need you now more than ever to help us protect religious freedom. Learn how you can get involved here.