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Sheriff plans to hold deputy graduation at a church

UPDATED 4:50 p.m.

Legacy Church will be the site of tomorrow’s graduation ceremony for new sheriff’s deputies. Sheriff Dan Houston’s bio on the Bernalillo County website states that he’s worked as the church’s security director for years.

Sheriff Department spokesperson Jennifer Vega Brown confirmed that Houston is a member of the church. She points out that under former Sheriff Manny Gonzales, graduation ceremonies were also held at Legacy Church. The Albuquerque Police Department has held two graduations there in the last few years, as well as at Hoffmantown Church, the APD chapel and secular venues, according to spokesperson Trish Hoffman.

Vega Brown says Legacy is a common place to hold large events, and other government agencies utilize the church. Plus, she says, the auditorium is just an auditorium. “When you walk in the front door, you don’t know that you’re in a church.” The county uses the venue, she says, because it’s free, there’s no fee for parking, and it can accommodate the number of people who will attend the 18-cadet graduation.

When the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union got wind of the venue earlier this week, Executive Director Peter Simonson had to object. “There are countless nonreligious sites that the Sheriff’s Department could have used to hold their graduation ceremony,” he said in an interview with the Alibi. “What’s really at stake is whether a government official can use his authority to impose religious beliefs on employees.”

The U.S. Constitution prohibits that, Simonson says. Holding the graduation ceremony in a church violates the religious establishment clause of the First Amendment. Not to mention, he adds, there’s a comparable provision in New Mexico’s constitution. Both indicate “no government official should endorse a particular religious faith in their capacity as an agent of government,” according to Simonson.

There’s grounds for a lawsuit here, he says, if a plaintiff steps forward.

Vega Brown counters that there’s nothing about the event that’s an endorsement of a religion. Though it’s standard practice to have a chaplain deliver an invocation, the Sheriff’s Department had not yet lined one up for tomorrow’s ceremony.

The ACLU of New Mexico issued a letter earlier today asking for the Sheriff’s Department to hold the graduation somewhere else. But it would be impossible to reschedule this late in the game, Vega Brown says.