Cop Who Wouldn't Enter Mosque Loses Appeal
(CN) - A Tulsa police captain was properly demoted for refusing to attend, or order a subordinate to attend, a police appreciation event hosted by Tulsa's Islamic Society at a mosque, the 10th Circuit ruled.
In 2010, the FBI notified the Islamic Society of Tulsa that terrorist threats had been made against it, and the Tulsa Police Department worked to protect the mosque and a school next door until the threat was over.
The Islamic Society decided to hold an event to thank the police department for its work. The event included a buffet of American and Middle Eastern foods, a mosque tour, and an optional prayer service.
When no officers volunteered to attend the event, Deputy Chief Alvin Webster ordered each shift to send two officers and a supervisor to the event to stay for at least 30 minutes.
Capt. Paul Fields objected to the order in an email to his superiors, saying he found it to be in "direct conflict with my personal religious convictions, as well as to be conscience shocking."
The same email said that "forcing me to enter a mosque when it is not directly related to a police call for service is a violation of my civil rights."
Webster responded in a 3-page letter explaining that community policing events were part of the Tulsa Police Department's mission, and that attending the event would not require any officer to participate in a religious ceremony. He said the event was intended to build ties with the Muslim community.
But Fields refused to reconsider, and informed Webster in person that he would not obey the order to designate any member of his shift to attend the event.
Moments later, Webster served Fields with papers notifying him that he was being transferred immediately to another division, and would be investigated for insubordination.
The investigation found that Fields "had committed an act of insubordination unprecedented in TPD history," and suspended him for 10 days without pay. He was also assigned to the graveyard shift.
One hundred fifty police officers attended the Islamic Society's function, far more than the 27 the officers detailed to attend the event.
Fields filed a civil rights complaint against the Police Department, claiming his punishment violated the First Amendment, but the district court ruled against him.
The 10th Circuit affirmed last week, finding that "no informed, reasonable observer would have perceived the order or the event as a government endorsement of Islam."
Even Fields' reading of the order was unreasonable, because he could have assigned another officer to attend the event, the court found.
Fields "has not claimed on appeal that he ever told his superiors that ordering others to attend (possibly in violation of their beliefs) would violate his religious beliefs. Although he made clear that he thought that ordering others to attend would be unconstitutional, that is a legal objection, not a religious one," Judge Harris Hartz wrote for the three-judge panel.
From 2004 to 2011, the Tulsa Police Department held 350 events at religious venues, or that were sponsored by religious groups of various faiths.
"Failure by TPD to attend would have treated the Islamic community differently from other religious organizations that had sought TPD attendance at prior events. That concern was foremost among the purposes for the order that Webster expressed when he first asked Fields to reconsider his objection," Hartz wrote.
There was no requirement for officers to tour the mosque or participate in the prayer service, and no sign that the government endorsed the religion of Islam if certain members of the society encouraged officers to learn more about the religion.
"The Establishment Clause does not prohibit governmental efforts to promote tolerance, understanding, and neighborliness," the 27-page opinion said.