NEWARK – Citing the separation of church and state, a national nonprofit has called for an end to the Licking County Prosecutor’s Office chaplain program.

According to a press release from the Freedom From Religion Foundation to the Newark Advocate, the nonprofit learned of the program after a concerned local resident contacted them to report a chaplain with the Licking County Prosecutor’s Office delivered a religious invocation at the 2019 Newark Division of Police Awards.

After requesting public records related to the program, FFRF claims “several aspects of the program show a problematic promotion of religion.”

The Licking County Prosecutor’s Office Chaplain Division was started in 2017 after Licking County Prosecutor Bill Hayes was elected to the position in November 2016. Comprised of chaplains across the county, they make death notifications, provide support to victims’ families and local law enforcement, and more.

Chaplain Craig Burdick gives invocation at the 2019 Newark Division of Police Awards Presentation on Wednesday, May 29, 2019. Burdick is one of several chaplains who are part of the Licking County Prosecutor’s Office Chaplain Division. (Photo: Michaela Sumner/Newark Advocate)

In a Sept. 10 letter to Hayes, FFRF’s attorney Ryan Jayne cited the chaplain program’s stated purposes and creed, suggesting the program should be replaced with a comparable, secular community suport program.

“While it is admirable for community members to volunteer to assist with death notifications and trauma counseling, it is unconstitutional for the County to insert religioin into these activities by sending religious ministers of the County’s chosen religious sects to carry out a ‘field ministry,'” the attorney wrote. “The program’s own terms highlight that the chaplains are expected to provide religious services, and the delivery of a religious invocation at the 2019 Newark Division of Police Awards confirms this practice.”

According to Jayne, many law enforcement agencies insist their chaplains don’t advocate for their personal religious beliefs while acting as a chaplain, but Jayne argued that’s not the case for Licking County’s chaplaincy program.

“This program states that chaplains represent both their church and the County simultaneously,” the letter states. “As a government representative, volunteers must abide by the same consitutional restrictions as any government employee.”

Toward the end of the letter, Jayne implored the prosecutor’s office to end the chaplaincy program, arguing Licking County must “remove all religious endorsement in its official activities, including official-led religious invocations and ordination requirements to be a County representative.”

Hayes told The Advocate they are reviewing the letter and looking into the nonprofit’s allegations of their agency.

“However, we have not reached any conclusion that we are violating anything,” Hayes said. “We are reviewing it very carefully and we will respond to them.”

For more information about the chaplaincy program, visit the Licking County Prosecutor’s Office website. For more information about FFRF, visit their website.

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