Secular Sunday X – Choose Your Battles

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Spokane Police Chaplain Patch

A couple of weeks ago, the City of Spokane agreed to remove crosses from the patches of its police chaplains as part of an out-of-court settlement in a federal lawsuit filed against it.

The lawsuit was filed by Ray Ideus, a Lutheran pastor of 30 years turned atheist. Ideus, a 75 year old senior police volunteer – whose duties do not include working as a chaplain – argued that it’s unconstitutional to have a cross on an official City of Spokane insignia. The lawsuit posited that having the cross on police chaplains’ patches is an “impermissible incorporation of a particular religious symbol in a government insignia.”

Despite being countersued by Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi (who claimed the lawsuit was “false, and unfounded, malicious and without probable cause”), police chief Anne Kirkpatrick announced the settlement to the City Council, adding that chaplains may still wear lapel pins with crosses or other insignia showing personal religious preferences.

Said Ideus of the decision: “It’s very important that they’ll have to take that cross off. It’s not a Christian police department. The chaplains have to minister to all faiths and non-faiths.”

This is a great victory for atheists, right? It would seem so, but I’m not really convinced.

Without knowing all of the details about the lawsuit, it seems like Ideus simply chose to sue the city to get the crosses off the patches. While he was successful in getting the crosses removed from the patches, which are located on the chaplains’ arms, crosses (and other religious insignia) are now allowed to be worn on the chaplains’ lapels – arguably a much more conspicuous location. Add to that the fact that police chaplains aren’t technically paid with taxpayer dollars (their wages are paid by donations from fellow officers) and you have a publicly perceived “attack on Christianity.”

In fact, that’s exactly how City Counselwoman Nancy McLaughlin described the situation. “I didn’t realize this was going on. When people are intimidated into removing religious symbols, it’s not good for our country. I was amazed there was not more attention paid to it,” McLaughlin said.

Really, lady? That’s the stance you’re going to take? Talk about things not being good for our country…

The bottom line here is that while I agree with Ideus in principle, I do not condone his actions. Why stop at suing to have the crosses removed from only one part of the uniform? The lawsuit should have demanded that the position of police chaplain cease to exist altogether. If they’re just serving as grief counselors, then call them grief counselors. You don’t have to sack anyone, just change their title and take the religious symbols off of the uniforms. They don’t have to avoid talking about God. They don’t have to refrain from discussing religion with grieving officers (so long as the officer is not offended).

The real takeaway from this is choose your battles. If you look at the overall picture, what did Ideus accomplish? Nothing that benefits atheists. The crosses are still on the uniform (more prominently so) and a bunch of religious folk hate atheists even more. Way to go.

I don’t disagree that atheists need to band together and take a stand against Christian privilege, I just think we need to carefully decide which issues to fight, and which to leave alone. A lot of religious people already call atheists “whiny” and lawsuits like this one only make it worse.

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  1. Mariah

    Gosh, I hadn’t heard about this until now. I’m very glad to see the cross gone from official police department badges. Symbols carry great meaning, and it is silly to pretend they aren’t significant when intertwined with representations of the state. Can you imagine how certain people might react if that cross were replaced with a satanic star!? It is an interesting point that these police chaplains are apparently not publicly funded, however.

    Personally I think they should be allowed the lapel pins, and/or any other jewelry or tattoos that signify their own PERSONAL belief system.



  3. What a great patriot you are, Ellis.

    Unfortunately, you missed the point of the post. I wasn’t saying that all crosses everywhere should be removed; that’s asinine because it would deny people the right to publicly express their beliefs. That’s a basic First Amendment right that’s important to protect.

    My point was, if there’s a separation of church and state, why does the position of police chaplain exist? That’s a clear violation of the principle, and simply removing the crosses from the patches isn’t an acceptable solution. In fact, as I pointed out, all it really serves to do is get theists mad at atheists.

    Granted, nullifying the position of police chaplain altogether would also rub theists the wrong way, but then again, that doesn’t take much, does it?

    Your sarcastic remark to remove crosses from cemeteries is fallacious, because it assumes that cemeteries are public spaces. Most cemeteries are privately owned, meaning they have the right to display (or prevent the display of) whatever religious symbols they want.

    Churches are also privately owned, and therefore have the same display rights as cemeteries.

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