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State Forestry Agency Ends Chaplain Program

The department acts after being sued by six firefighters alleging a church-state breach.

September 07, 2003|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has eliminated its official chaplain program after six state firefighters filed a lawsuit against the department earlier this year.

They alleged that the department breached the separation of church and state by introducing Christian prayers at fire scenes and graduation ceremonies, paying for chaplain training and giving chaplains, who are line officers, religious pins to wear on their uniforms.

According to last week's directive, employees still may invoke moments of silence at department events, but they can introduce religion only in their off-duty hours. Firefighters may volunteer to minister to others, but cannot wear their uniforms while doing so or receive any state funding for religious duties or training.

To keep religious services available, the department is negotiating to transfer the 2 1/2-year-old chaplain program to the firefighters union.

CDF spokeswoman Karen Terrill said the department and plaintiffs came to the agreement amicably in the interests of improving the work environment. The department also will pay the plaintiffs' legal fees, which come to $45,500.

"We believe this is the way to go: to separate any appearance of sponsorship of religion in the department," Terrill added. "We stress that we will not prevent religious discussions or exchanges, but it will not be done on CDF time."

Battalion Chief Michael Cole, who is helping to spearhead the complaint, said he and his colleagues were extremely happy with the result.

"We basically got everything we wanted from the beginning: no tax dollars to fund the chaplain program, removal of religious symbols, an end to prayer and religious training at work sites, and putting the program in the volunteer sector," he said.

Cole, 51, said he and his colleagues are not against religion; they are against the official endorsement of religion in the workplace. If one firefighter strikes up a conversation about the Bible with another at the station, he said, he has no problem with that.

"Those are personal conversations, not department-sponsored conversations," Cole said. "You can have personal conversations at the work site as long as it doesn't interfere with the job."

Such conversation would be inappropriate only if a superior were preaching a particular religion to a subordinate and the subordinate felt pressured to agree for his or her job's sake, added Allen Hutkin, one of the firefighters' lawyers.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Church and State, called the new directive a "proper resolution."

Government agencies that use public funds "to provide chaplains -- that is, spiritual services to employees, volunteers, schoolchildren and crime victims, and these are real incidents around the country -- are going to find themselves in constitutional quicksand," he said.

Shannan Villegas, however, was not cheering. The 30-year-old Perris resident first met a CDF chaplain last year when her firefighter husband was battling brain cancer. She said she was "very disappointed" with the elimination of the uniformed chaplaincy.

"You'd figure you'd want to say a little prayer before you go to a fire, because you never know if you're going to come back," she said.

Villegas said she thinks the new policy restricts compassionate firefighters from comforting their colleagues or community members in all the ways they know how.

"It's just that they did a lot for us, and we've seen them do a lot for other people," she said. "As long as they can stay together and do this, I guess it's better than nothing."

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