Federal Appeals Court Blows Whistle On Wisconsin Sheriff’s Religious Proselytism

Church-State Watchdog Group Lauds Ruling In Milwaukee County Case

A federal appeals court made the right call today by striking down religious presentations given at mandatory meetings at the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s office, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. ran afoul of the law by inviting the Fellowship of the Christian Centurions, a group that seeks to evangelize law-enforcement officers in its religious doctrines, to give proselytizing talks at meetings that deputy sheriffs were required to attend.

Americans United Executive Director the Rev. Barry W. Lynn welcomed the decision, which he called “a strong reaffirmation of religious liberty.”

Said Lynn, “Sheriff Clarke is free to engage in whatever religious activities he wants in his personal time, but he has no right to use official channels to impose religion on his staff.”

Americans United filed an amicus brief in the Milwaukee Deputy Sheriff’s Association v. Clarke case, siding with two deputies who objected to the religious presentations.

The dispute goes back to 2006, when Clarke arranged for members of the Centurions, a group affiliated with Elmbrook Church, a local evangelical congregation, to address the deputies. Attendance was mandatory for all deputies with the rank of sergeant or above.

During one meeting in Spring of 2006, Clarke announced that he would soon make promotions to the rank of captain and distributed a flyer stating that leaders often look for “people of faith” in their inner circles.

The Centurions ended up making 16 presentations in May of 2006. The plaintiffs in the case, a Muslim sheriff’s deputy and a Roman Catholic deputy, protested. When their complaints were ignored, they brought an action with their union.

A lower court ruled in favor of the deputies, and today’s decision upholds that finding.

The appeals court said Clarke unconstitutionally endorsed religion, noting that in this case “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.”

Continued the court, “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.”

AU’s Lynn said, “It’s a shame this case had to go to court. Officials at government agencies should realize by now that they have no right to subject their employees to religious proselytism.”

AU’s legal brief in the Milwaukee Deputy Sheriffs Association v. Clarke case was written by Louis Cohen, Heather Gomes and Ryan Foreman of the Washington, D.C., office of the international law firm WilmerHale, in consultation with AU Legal Director Ayesha Khan and AU Senior Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser. 

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.