Legality of Chaplaincy

There is a lot of confusion regarding the separation of church and state in this country. Our definition of a chaplain is a "minister in the workplace". As such, this ministry desires to be a bridge between the sacred and the secular. The Constitution of the United States provides the means by which this may be properly accomplished without compromising in either direction.

In 1971, the Supreme Court finding (Lemon vs Kurtzman) resulted in a Three Prong Test, which would interpret the constitutionality of ministries or church related services which may be questioned in relationship to Church and State issues.

The first amendment to the Constitution of the United States provides the following protection: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

One court summarized the first amendment protection in this manner: “The amendment protects freedom of (religious) speech and expression of view. It protects the free exercise of religion. And it insures freedom of religious worship by prohibiting the government from any establishment of religion.”

In the findings of Lemon vs. Kurtzman, (403 U.S. 602, (1971), the court said that: “First, the action must have a secular purpose; second, it’s principal effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and finally, the action must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.


Policies and programs of any government or its agencies must not have a religious purpose. The Supreme Court has explained that there can be no “Animus of Religion”, (animosity against religion) in the design and goal of a program. However, the court has also made it clear that the presence of religious purpose, being secondary, would not change any established laws and how they are interpreted or practiced. The court will not validate any legislations or governmental action when a secular purpose is lacking, but it will validate the action if it is proven that the activity is motivated wholly by religious consideration. In Carter vs. Broadlawns Medical Center, a case challenging a hospital chaplaincy program, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the district court pliancy erred by focusing almost exclusively on the religious purpose, without looking at the complete subject matter, which reveals a valid secular purpose (to help patients get well). Thus, as long as there is a valid overall Secular Purpose, there may be religious benefits to the program without violating the constitution.


The government action must not have the primary or principal effect of enhancing or inhibiting religion. In other words, the government must remain neutral on all matters concerning relief organization and their involvement in government and or its agencies. Just because a program that is run by a religious organization, is involved in the government and its’ agencies and receives an incidental benefit under government policy, does not mean it has violated the primary effect. In Carter vs. Broadlawns, the hospital chaplaincy program was challenged on the grounds that it violated the effect test by providing financial aid to enable persons in its care to practice their religions.While the district court concluded that paying a chaplain to provide religious care is an advancement of religion, the 8th circuit Court of

Appeals noted that some financial benefit to religion can be tolerated in applying the effect of the element. Understand that government or it agencies can hire (pay) chaplains to perform their services. However, the selection result must be done through a religiously neutral process rather than with a specific church or religious organization that would restrict the eligibility of all chaplains.


The final question is, “Does the government action foster excessive entanglement with religion?” An agency cannot enforce exclusion of certain religious guidelines, but must open its forum to all religious doctrines. Nor can the Government oversee, inquire, determine, or monitor the material (what is religious and what is not) and religious doctrine, for it likely violates the undue entanglement element. The Religious Element cannot usurp the authority of the agency which is being served and remain under the covering of the Establishment Clause. Chaplains must be careful to avoid implications of the first amendment establishment clause. It is in the best interest of the chaplain to understand ramifications of this finding and be able to articulate involving the ministry being endorsed by or sponsored by a government agency.


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