Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul has no plans to end the department’s chaplain program created under his Republican predecessor despite a lawsuit filed against the initiative.
Kaul told the Wisconsin State Journal he views the chaplain program as an important component of the Department of Justice’s wellness efforts for employees, downplaying concerns from a secular organization that the program is an unconstitutional violation of the separation between church and state and excludes atheists and non-believers from participating.
Kaul said the department has a range of secular wellness options for those seeking them, and that the chaplain program is just one part of a multi-pronged approach to boosting employee well-being. Kaul said the department also offers a peer support program, which trains employees to identify the signs of someone in crisis and how to help someone who is considering suicide.
DOJ employees can also take advantage of employee assistance programs provided to state workers who are experiencing personal and work-related issues.
“Having a broad officer wellness program that includes lots of options … is important,” Kaul said. “Law enforcement officers and our division of criminal investigation around the state encounter some really difficult circumstances. We do not plan to immediately end the program.”
Just before he lost re-election last year, former Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel established the volunteer-based program in October to support DOJ employees who sometimes grapple with difficult issues on the job. Schimel’s DOJ had worked for about a year on establishing the program Schimel said was a “critical component” of the DOJ.
The program quickly drew the ire of the Madison-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the separation of church and state. The group filed a lawsuit against Schimel in November arguing the DOJ was violating the state and U.S. Constitutions.
Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said she’s surprised Kaul has vowed to keep the program for now, but that she’s hopeful he’ll change his mind upon further consideration.
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“We still remain hopeful that this program will be replaced with something that answers the real needs of DOJ employees that doesn’t also endorse religion,” Gaylor said.
Her group’s lawsuit states the DOJ, through the chaplain program, actively promotes religion and “gives non-religious DOJ employees and their family members no option other than receiving counseling from religious clergy.”
While the program is volunteer-based, the lawsuit states the DOJ hired a paid chaplain program coordinator, and that the department also reimburses chaplains for reasonable expenses. The DOJ was not immediately able to provide details as to the amount of money it has provided in reimbursements.
Gaylor said the program is unnecessary because DOJ employees can seek mental health counseling through their state insurance plans. The chaplain program, according to the lawsuit, does not require chaplains to have any mental health qualifications or professional licensing.
The lawsuit also criticized the fact all six chaplains originally appointed under the program “are all white males from Christian faiths.”
The lawsuit carried over to Kaul’s DOJ, and the foundation has continued to call on him to end the program. Kaul hasn’t done that, and the program currently features eight volunteer chaplains from Christian faiths, including one woman, according to the DOJ’s website.
The lawsuit states DOJ volunteer chaplains “must be ordained or licensed clergy,” and therefore “affirmatively excludes secular mental health professionals.”
“The program is inherently discriminatory, entirely unnecessary, and unconstitutionally promotes religion,” foundation attorney Andrew Seidel wrote in an email.
The foundation has argued government chaplain programs are legally permissible in few limited circumstances, usually to lighten a government-imposed “burden” on religious exercise. The foundation argues that does not apply to the state DOJ.