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Sorry Officer, You Have a Duty to Protect and Serve, Not Proselytize

Aleksandr Sverdlik,
Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief
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May 23, 2014

Imagine a police officer refusing to guard a Sikh temple, give a presentation on safety and crime prevention at a Catholic elementary school, conduct foot patrols in a neighborhood with a large Orthodox Jewish population, or come to the aid of an injured woman wearing a hijab.

As crazy as they may sound, these scenarios are not that far-fetched, given an Oklahoma police officer’s recent refusal to serve community members with different religious beliefs.

In 2011, the Islamic Society of Tulsa organized a Law Enforcement Appreciation Day to show its gratitude for protection provided after threats to its mosque. As part of its longstanding community-policing initiative, the Tulsa Police Department requested some of its officers to attend, as they had for hundreds of other outreach events hosted by various religious organizations over the years.

One officer – Captain Paul Fields – refused, however, claiming his attendance would pose a “moral dilemma.” Even when in uniform, Fields argued, he had a “duty to proselytize” anyone who doesn’t share his Christian beliefs. Despite his supervisors’ assurances that no one at the event would be required to participate in any religious observations or express or adopt any beliefs, and despite their offers that he send a subordinate in his place, Fields wouldn’t follow orders.

In a unanimous decision yesterday, a federal appellate court rightly found Captain Fields’s claims to have no merit, agreeing with the Tulsa Police Department and the ACLU. Though certainly entitled to his own deeply held beliefs, as a police officer, Captain Fields is bound to serve all members of the community, regardless of their faith.

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