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Police Captain Who Opposed Event at Islamic Center Lacks Constitutional Claim

By John B. Brown  6/19/2014
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A police captain in Tulsa, Okla., who claimed that he was punished by his superiors for refusing to attend an event at a mosque failed to prove that his constitutional rights had been violated, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.  

To thank the police department for providing protection after receiving threats, the Islamic Society of Tulsa invited local law enforcement to a “Law Enforcement Appreciation Day.” The flyer explained that the event would be casual and include a buffet, mosque tours and presentations upon request. When no one from the police department volunteered to attend, a deputy chief sent an e-mail ordering each shift to send two officers and a supervisor or commander to the event.

Believing that the order to attend the event at the mosque was improper, Captain Paul Fields advised his superiors that he would not follow the order. Fields explained in an e-mail that the order was in direct conflict with his personal religious convictions. Fields further explained that he would respond to a “call for service” at the mosque but that his being forced to enter a mosque when it was not directly related to a call for police service violated his constitutional rights. In a meeting with his supervisors, Fields again stated that he would not attend the event or order others to appear at the mosque. Although Fields did not attend the event, about 150 police officers attended.

After being transferred to another division because he would not follow the order, Fields sued the city and two of his supervisors, claiming that they had violated his First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion and freedom of association, the Establishment Clause and the Equal Protection Clause. Later, after an internal investigation was completed, Fields received a suspension and was assigned to the graveyard shift. Fields’ lawsuit was dismissed by the district court, which concluded that Fields’ constitutional rights had not been violated.

The court of appeals agreed that Fields could not prove his claims. He could not prove a violation of his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion because neither the city nor Fields’ supervisors placed a burden on his religious beliefs or practices. In fact, the order of which Fields complained did not require him to attend the event at the mosque. The order allowed him to assign others to serve as representatives. And Fields did not complain that his requiring subordinates to attend would violate his religious beliefs. The court of appeals rejected Fields’ Equal Protection claim for the same reasons.

Fields also could not prove a violation of the Establishment Clause, which provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The court of appeals explained that no informed reasonable person would believe that the purpose or effect of the police presence at the mosque demonstrated Islam is a preferred religion. The police department regularly engaged in community events, including hundreds that were held at religious venues or sponsored by religious organizations. And, in clarifying the order, Fields’ supervisors had noted that officers would not be required to participate in any religious ceremony or express opinions on religion.

Similarly, Fields could not prove a violation of his First Amendment right to freedom of association, because the order did not prevent him from engaging in any association. And the order did not even require him to attend the Islamic event.

Fields v. City of Tulsa, 10th Cir. 12-5218 (May 22, 2014).

Professional Pointer: Because the employer’s order did not require the employee to attend the event sponsored by a religious group but instead allowed him to send others as representatives, the employee could not demonstrate that he was punished in violation of his rights of free exercise of religion and of association. 

John B. Brown is a shareholder in the Dallas office of Ogletree Deakins, an international labor and employment law firm representing management.



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