Abolish Fire Department Chaplains in Austin
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a large Christian nationalist legal group that opposes separation of church and state, is always on the lookout for sob stories involving conservative Christians who claim they’re being discriminated against for their views. There’s always more to the story.
The group’s latest faux victim involves a man who served as a volunteer chaplain with the Austin, Texas, Fire Department until December 2021, when he was let go after he posted comments attacking transgender athletes on his blog.
The chaplain, an ordained minister, claims the dismissal violated his free speech and religious freedom rights. In a lawsuit in federal court filed on his behalf by ADF, he is demanding reinstatement, an apology and money in the form of compensatory damages.
Let’s put aside the question of whether someone can be “fired” from a volunteer position. The more compelling question is why does the Austin Fire Department have chaplains to begin with?
When most people think of chaplains, the military comes to mind. Chaplains might make sense in that context, since members of the armed forces are often stationed far from home, sometimes abroad, and don’t have access to their home congregations.
That’s hardly the case in Austin, a growing city of nearly 1 million residents. Austin has more than 800 houses of worship, representing Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Islamic and other faith communities.
In a bustling metropolis like this, firefighters who need spiritual solace (or secular counseling) can find it without difficulty. Better yet, the city could acknowledge that these jobs are often stressful and make available trained, professional psychological counselors to help all staff who are struggling, no matter what they believe about religion.
That approach makes even more sense in this case because this chaplain is clearly not going to be of use to some firefighters. Let’s say you’re a firefighter who is a member of the LGBTQ community. Are you really going to feel comfortable going to an anti-LGBTQ chaplain when you’re in need?
In this case, the chaplain said hateful and hurtful things about members of a community that, as part of his duties, he is expected to serve. He got called on it and now is claiming he’s the victim. It’s page 1 of the ADF’s playbook.
There’s an easy answer here: To avoid problems like this going forward, Austin officials should take the decisive step of abolishing chaplains in all its public safety services.