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 V.20 No.35 | September 1 - 7, 2011 

News Bite

State in Church

ACLU calls out Sheriff’s Department for holding an event in the Lord’s house

Bernalillo County Sheriff Dan Houston
Bernalillo County Sheriff Dan Houston

When civil rights lawyers objected to the Sheriff's Department holding cadet graduation in a church, a spokesperson replied: We've held it there before, and APD has done it, too.

The ceremony on Friday, Aug. 26, took place in the auditorium of Legacy Church. Sheriff Dan Houston is a member there and worked as the security director. But spokesperson Jennifer Vega-Brown says that's not why the graduation was held at the church: It's a good spot because there's no fee, there's ample free parking and it's big enough. Under Sheriff Manny Gonzales, cadet graduation was also held at Legacy, she adds.

Albuquerque Police Department spokesperson Trish Hoffman confirmed APD has held two such ceremonies there in the last few years, as well as at Hoffmantown Church. But in 2010, without prompting, Mayor Richard Berry's administration started using secular, city-owned venues instead.

“Mayor Berry was faced with the same question, and of his own accord made the decision to discontinue using the church.”

Peter Simonson, executive director of ACLU-NM

That's telling, says Peter Simonson, executive director of the state's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Mayor Berry was faced with the same question, and of his own accord made the decision to discontinue using the church. That speaks volumes to me. It's my hope the Bernalillo County sheriff will make the same decision."

On Thursday, the ACLU issued a letter calling for the department to conduct its business somewhere else. But it was impossible to reschedule on such short notice, Vega-Brown says.

Someone who worked at the county had a go-between call the ACLU to complain of the church's use earlier in the week, Simonson says. “There are countless nonreligious sites that the Sheriff’s Department could have used to hold their graduation ceremony,” he says. “What’s really at stake is whether a government official can use his authority to impose religious beliefs on employees.”

The U.S. Constitution outlines that government officials can't endorse a particular faith while on the job, he says, and the state constitution has a comparable provision. But Vega-Brown counters that the auditorium doesn't house religious iconography. "When you walk in the front door, you don't know that you're in a church." There's nothing about cadet graduation that's an endorsement of religion, she says, though it’s standard practice to have a chaplain deliver an invocation.

Still, the county should pick another spot next year for practical reasons, Simonson says. "Someone could ask us to represent them in a lawsuit for violation of their religious freedom." But it's hard to find a plaintiff in these situations, he adds. "These are perhaps the most intimidating for people to come forward and take part in litigation," he says, and people fear retaliation. "When a Christian view is being promoted and they object to that, that's when people feel most reluctant."

The ACLU will keep its eye on government ceremonies in churches, he says. Vega-Brown says she doesn’t know yet whether the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department will continue holding cadet graduations at Legacy Church.


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