Volunteer chaplains who serve the officers of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) in North Carolina have been told that they are no longer permitted to pray in the name of Jesus at public events.
Chaplains have been used for years in the department to not only support the officers, crime victims and their families, but to also offer prayers at public ceremonies and events. Terry Sartain, senior pastor of Horizon Christian Fellowship and a CMPD chaplain, was scheduled to pray at a recent promotion ceremony, but he backed out after he was told he could no longer pray in Jesus' name at public events or on public property.
The phone call he received about the policy change was "nice," he says, and he was offered the opportunity to withdraw "because they really respect my faith and the work that I've done as a chaplain." Sartain has worked with the CMPD for seven years.
"I understand the government's position, it's just I don't like it. I hate it, but I'm not going to compromise," Sartain told The Christian Post on Thursday.
He added, "Whether people believe it or not, Jesus has jurisdiction, divine rights over every human being ... The importance is it's not the words 'in Jesus name' but the only thing I have to bless people with is Jesus. He has given me his life, and I have nothing to offer. Christians only have Christ to offer."
Major John Diggs, who oversees the department's volunteer chaplain program, told The News & Observer that the decision to get rid of "Jesus" in department prayers was made about a month ago. The goal, he says, is to show respect for the variety of religious beliefs held by the over 2,000 department employees.
"This is not in any way an effort to demean anybody's Christian beliefs," Diggs told The News & Observer. "It's to show respect for all the religious practices in our organization. CMPD is not anybody's church."
The battle over public prayer isn't anything new to North Carolina. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court decided not to review a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which found that the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners violated the Constitution by invoking the name of Jesus during prayers that opened their meetings. The case was filed, in part, by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 2007.
Jim Gronquist, a former Methodist minister who is now an ACLU member and a practicing lawyer, told WSOC-TV that the CMPD made the right decision and says it was long overdue.
"It's improper to mix up religion with the function of state agents, and as long as they're state agents, they should not be able to do that," said Gronquist.
But Barbara Weller, an attorney with the Christian Law Association, disagrees, and says the decision results from an "intolerant and bigoted attitude and it's not required by the law."
Weller says some of the court decisions on public prayer conflict with one another. She believes the decision in Joyner v. Forsyth County, for example, conflicts with a school prayer case, Lee v. Weisman, in which the Supreme Court's decision suggests that the government cannot dictate to someone the words they must pray.
Sartain says he doesn't force his beliefs on anyone he works with as a chaplain, but he says he is always prepared to share his faith with them if they want to hear about it. If he was ever told to give up praying in Jesus' name altogether, he says, he would leave his duties as a CMPD chaplain, because otherwise he would be "denying Christ."
"I'm there to represent Christ, and represent his love for them," he said.