Alliance Defending Freedom, a large Christian nationalist legal group that opposes separation of church and state, in August filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of a volunteer chaplain with the Austin Fire Department who claims he was discriminated against because of his religious views.
Andrew Fox served as a volunteer chaplain with the department until December 2021, when he was let go after he posted comments attacking transgender athletes on his blog.
Fox, an ordained minister, claims the dismissal violated his free speech and religious freedom rights. His lawsuit demands reinstatement, an apology and money in the form of compensatory damages.
Although chaplains are most common in a military context, they are sometimes used in other arms of government. But as Americans United pointed out on its “Wall of Separation” blog, it hardly makes sense for Austin officials to have one in this context. Unlike members of the military, who might be stationed far from home without access to their home congregations, Austin’s firefighters live in a city of nearly one million residents.
Austin, AU noted, 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, AU said, 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,” observed Church & State Editor Rob Boston. “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?”
Concluded Boston, “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.”