Wisconsin Sheriff Has No Right To Proselytize, Says Appeals Court

The sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisc., has no right to require deputies to attend mandatory meetings where religious presentations take place, a federal appeals court has held.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously Dec. 4 that Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. ran afoul of the law by inviting the Fellowship of the Christian Centurions, a local group that seeks to evangelize law-enforcement officers, to give proselytizing talks at meetings that deputy sheriffs were required to attend.

The dispute goes back to 2006, when Clarke arranged for members of the Centurions, a group affiliated with Elmbrook Church, a local evangelical congregation, to address the deputies. Attendance was mandatory for all deputies with the rank of sergeant or above.

During one meeting in spring of 2006, Clarke announced that he would soon make promotions to the rank of captain and distributed a flyer stating that leaders often look for “people of faith” in their inner circles.

The Centurions ended up making 16 presentations in May of 2006. The plaintiffs in the case, Ilir Sino, a deputy who is Muslim, and Mark Zidek, a Roman Catholic, protested. When their complaints were ignored, they brought an action with their union.

A lower court ruled in favor of the deputies, and the 7th Circuit’s decision upholds that finding.

The appeals court said Clarke unconstitutionally endorsed religion, noting that in this case “an authority figure invited a Christian organization that engaged in religious proselytizing to speak on numerous occasions at mandatory government employee meetings. A reasonable observer would have been well aware that the Sheriff did not extend such privileges lightly.”

Continued the court, “Most other organizations that received similar access shared a common attribute: the Sheriff had expressed an interest in partnering with them. Indeed, it would be difficult to interpret the Sheriff’s actions as anything other than endorsement.”

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn welcomed the decision, which he called “a strong reaffirmation of religious liberty.”

Said Lynn, “Sheriff Clarke is free to engage in whatever religious activities he wants in his personal time, but he has no right to use official channels to impose religion on his staff.”

Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Milwaukee Deputy Sheriff’s Association v. Clarke case, siding with Sino and Zidek