By Michael Gordon
Originally Posted: Thursday, Jun. 21, 2012, 6:41 a.m.
Joining a move toward nonsectarian prayer, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has asked its chaplains to stop including Jesus in their invocations at official department ceremonies.
The change, which applies to such events as police graduations, promotions and memorials, took place about a month ago, said Maj. John Diggs, who heads the department’s volunteer chaplain program. The goal: greater sensitivity to all religions practiced by the more than 2,000 police employees.
“This is not in any way an effort to demean anybody’s Christian beliefs,” Diggs said. “It’s to show respect for all the religious practices in our organization. CMPD is not anybody’s church.”
Terry Sartain, a police chaplain for seven years, said he got the news shortly before he was to give the invocation at a promotions ceremony last month. When he was told not to use Jesus in his prayer, he asked to be excused.
“Jesus is all I’ve got for a blessing,” said Sartain, pastor of Horizon Christian Fellowship in west Charlotte. “Now I’ve got to find a balance. I want to serve the officers and their families. I don’t want to jam my beliefs down anybody’s throat. But I won’t deny Jesus.”
Diggs said Sartain won’t have to. If a chaplain is uncomfortable with a nonsectarian prayer at a particular event, Diggs said the department will respect that and find a replacement.
The new police policy represents the latest friction over the separation between church and state.
CMPD’s controversial brushes with inclusion
CMPD’s recent move to adopt a more inclusive policy and practice for citizens of all religious faiths and backgrounds is not the police agency’s first controversial brush with matters of diversity. In November 2010, several CMPD chaplains resigned after a lesbian minister was appointed to the all-volunteer chaplaincy staff. CMPD officials, including CMPD Chief Rodney Monroe, defended the decision to appoint the minister. Monroe wrote in a letter at the time, that he would “respect the decisions and convictions of those who have decided to resign, as I would never ask anyone to compromise their beliefs. But I do hope that those of us who remain, continue our dedication to this Department and continue to embrace our goal of being an inclusive organization that respects the differences of all of our employees.”
— Matt Comer
In January, the U.S. Supreme Court backed a lower court banning Forsyth County from opening its meetings with sectarian prayer. In protest, several government bodies across the state have openly ignored the ruling. The debate over Christian vs. nonsectarian prayers has also bubbled up in Minnesota, California and Virginia.
The U.S. military uses nonsectarian prayer. So do both houses of Congress. The N.C. legislature, however, often opens with Christian invocations, a practice that the American Civil Liberties Union has asked lawmakers to stop.
Diggs of the CMPD said the department’s officers and civilian employees represent many different faiths, from Christians to Muslims and Jews. The department has six chaplains, all Christian.
Sartain said he continues to give Christian prayers at private events that involve police, including a recent service celebrating law enforcement at First Baptist Church.
Several ministers in town supported the police move.
MPD “is telling its Christian chaplains to observe the same practices we would desire and respect from Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu chaplains,” said the Rev. Dennis Foust of St. John’s Baptist Church of Charlotte.
“When we gather as citizens, we do not gather in the name of Jesus. Our prayers are offered to God with respect for the first clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
The Rev. Russ Dean of Park Road Baptist Church said he supports sensitivity in public prayer, particularly in using the name of Jesus.
“But how else do you expect Baptists to pray?” he said.
Dean said he yearns for the day when rabbis, imams or Baptist preachers can offer the opening prayer at a Panthers’ game in their own way.
“Until then,” Dean said, “we are really asking people of diverse faiths to become a part of some homogenized pseudo-faith, a public religion that is offensive to all because it attempts to offend none.”
— Charlotte Observer Staff Researcher Marion Paynter contributed.