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Suit Challenges Firefighter-Chaplains

Federal Court in L.A. Will Hear Case That Alleges Improper Insertion of Religion Into Workplace

June 17, 2003|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

Robert Lewin couldn't keep his eyes off the shiny quarter-size pin above a fellow captain's name plate. It was January 2001, just after the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officially pinned new chaplains in the San Luis Obispo unit.

"I was so taken aback that a person who was wearing the exact same uniform in every way was wearing a cross on her uniform," said Lewin, who is now a battalion chief.

"I thought we weren't allowed to do such things in CDF, with all the training we get in diversity and being accepting of people and harassment training," he said. "A uniform represents the department, represents government.... The government can't establish religion."

That night, Lewin wrote a letter to department officials, protesting what he viewed as a colleague's improperly inserting religion -- in particular, Christianity -- into the workplace.

Two years later, dissatisfied by internal responses, Lewin and five colleagues took their fight to maintain the separation of church and state to federal court in Los Angeles. The parties will meet in court this summer.

Officials at the 4,000-employee department said they do not comment on pending litigation. But in a May 23 response to the firefighters' complaint, the department "denies that the purpose of the chaplain program is to introduce sectarian religious activities into the CDF."

It also denies that a chaplain's duties require a spiritual element and that the chaplain program produces "irreparable" injuries.

In a letter to Lewin in November 2001, the chief of the equal employment opportunity program agreed to remove religious content from an intranet folder and to revise the department's policy toward the pins and the selection of chaplains.

But in the letter, Chief Karen Cohen also said the chaplain program "is appropriate because the Constitution does not require hostility towards religion by the government."

Lewin and his colleagues, however, believe that the chaplain corps -- a group of about 50 line officers who minister to firefighters and their families -- violates the separation of church and state guaranteed by the U.S. and California Constitutions.

They say they were particularly offended by the pins, references to the Lord and Jesus in chaplains' invocations and the alleged evangelical Christian bias of the department's head chaplain, Jay Donnelly. Donnelly wrote on the Web site of the Fellowship of Christian Firefighters in 2001 that a prayer vision had prompted him to start the chaplaincy.

"It's about three simple things," Lewin said. "We don't want department displays of religion.... We don't want government funds for the promotion of religion.... And we don't want chaplains to be uniformed personnel who supervise other employees."

"Imagine the potential for misuse and discrimination if an employee seeks promotion from a supervisor or a ranking officer who has the power to evaluate based on religious affiliations," said Michael Cole, a co-plaintiff.

In the midst of a budget crisis, added Allen Hutkin, a lawyer for the group, using precious government funds for training and overtime for chaplains seems particularly egregious.

"Why are we using taxpayer dollars for this when cutting back on schools?" Hutkin asked. "We could have volunteers do it."

Many public agencies, including the U.S. armed forces, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, have chaplains. Although the military pays its chaplains, they are not in the regular chain of command. Ten of the LAPD's 70 chaplains double as regular line officers, while the rest are volunteers.

Lewin and the other five in his group prefer the sheriff's chaplain program, which uses volunteers from the community who have at least five years' ecclesiastical experience and who are associated with a ministry. The six firefighters said they understand the military's need to employ chaplains for encamped soldiers without easy access to religious services, but they do not believe firefighters need department chaplains.

"Firefighters have four days off a week to practice any religion they want to," Lewin said.

The six firefighters, who have been dubbed "the satanic six" by some colleagues, seek to stop the chaplain program, but insist that they do not oppose the idea of spiritual aid.

"None of us are anti-religion," said Cole, who was raised Episcopalian. "We just don't want it on the work site. It's not fair to all employees or the people that we serve."

The others in the group are Catholic, Christian Scientist, nondenominational Christian, Jewish and reformed agnostic.

Five of the men -- Ed Applegate, Cole, Philip Hanon, Lewin and Michael Williams -- work in San Luis Obispo; Timothy Chavez works in Riverside.

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