Do Community Events Violate Separation of Church and State

Today’s burning question: I am a company officer in a large fire department with over 30 stations running four-person engine and truck companies handling 140,000 calls annually. We have a system in place for people to access their local fire stations through an on line “community service request” (CSR) form to ask for suppression personnel to show up at their event. We will show up with an engine or ladder staffed with the assigned on-duty personnel who are placed out-of-service for two to four hours. Many times these CSR’s are charity events for local churches. We are there solely for show and tell. If we were there to promote fire safety or fire prevention measures I would understand. Mostly we just show up empty handed due to budgetary constraints. With the public eye on us all the time should I be concerned about the separation of church and state?

Answer: There are really two questions you are asking and I want to be sure we get the difference on the table right from the start. The 2 questions are: 1. is such a practice advisable, and 2. is such a practice illegal?

Question 1. Is such a practice advisable? In other words, in the day and age of limited budgets, public scrutiny, and anti-government cynicism about virtually everything we do – is such a practice a good idea? Do the benefits – good PR, getting the firefighters closer to the community, recruiting future firefighters – outweigh the downside: the risk that while crews are out of service at the event a critical incident comes in where lives are lost; could the practice be perceived as a frivolous use of taxpayer funds; might someone argue that if the apparatus can be out of service for four hours for a community event then why can’t it be browned out for four hours (or 24 hours) in hard economic times; etc., etc., etc.

Question 1 is not a legal question per se, but rather is a leadership question. It is the type of question that the fire chief and his command staff needs to make – and be held accountable for. From that perspective, your concern as a company officer is simply to follow orders… assuming the orders are legal. That gets us to Question 2.

Question 2: Is it illegal for a fire department to allow it’s apparatus and personnel to attend community service events if some of them are religious? The simple answer: No. Let’s go a bit further.

What if a review of the CSR program shows that ALL of the community events are religious? It is probably still permissible so long as the program is not limited ONLY to religious entities, and the department does not pick and choose which events it will and will not attend based on religion (i.e. will attend Christian, will not attend Jewish or Muslim, etc.).

What if all of the events are for one particular religion just by virtue of the make up of the community? I suppose at some point an argument could be made that attending religious events is a violation of church and state. It is probably a stretch but if the facts of the case support an allegation that the fire department is somehow endorsing one religion over another it could be violation of the First Amendment.

THERE’s A LEADERSHIP IMPLICATION

If fire service leaders can take a giant step back and look at the original question (which is by no means an uncommon type of question I get asked) from the 37,000 foot view – it demonstrates how different parties (firefighters, citizens, elected officials) can use a legal argument to challenge a leader’s vision for the fire department.

In this case a firefighter is using the 1st Amendment (separation of church and state) to question why a fire department requires him to participate in a community service program. In another case, a firefighter may use a race discrimination argument to challenge why the fire department requires him to participate in an ethnic-themed parade. A firefighter who does not like doing fire inspections every afternoon may raise a concern about exposing himself and the department to “unnecessary liability” in the event a fire occurs in a building he inspected… and the beat goes on.

Legal challenges are the weapon of choice by folks unhappy with something. Legal challenges become obstacles to leadership and fire service leaders need to be able to navigate through these legal minefields without having their vision derailed. Leaders do not have to be lawyers – but they need to have an understanding of the law, plus have access to good legal counsel.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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