May 27, 2008

A Wisconsin sheriff has no right to compel his employees to attend presentations by an evangelical Christian group, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has told a federal appeals court.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed today with the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Americans United asserts that Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke violated the separation of church and state when he required deputies to attend presentations by the Fellowship of Christian Centurions (FCC). (The FCC is an organization formed by members of an evangelical church in Brookfield, Wisc.)

FCC representatives spoke at 16 mandatory roll call events where they proselytized attendees and passed out materials reflecting their religious views. A Roman Catholic deputy and a Muslim deputy objected to the speeches, but Clarke continued to hold them.

“Government officials can’t impose their religious beliefs on employees,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “Sheriff Clarke’s job is to uphold the law and the Constitution, not undermine it.”

Americans United’s legal brief points out that the Supreme Court and other federal courts have repeatedly said that government officials may not coerce people to take part in religious activities.

“This anti-coercion principle forbids government officials not only from requiring their subordinates to participate in religious activities such as prayer or Bible-reading, but also from requiring them to attend events at which prayers are said or proselytizing speeches are made,” asserts the AU brief.

U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman ruled in September of 2007 that Clarke’s actions amounted to a coercive promotion of religion. Clarke later filed an appeal before the 7th Circuit.

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.