Captain Paul Fields sued the City of Tulsa for violating his First Amendment rights, as well as the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, when his superior, Deputy Chief Webster, sent a memo ordering him or his officers to attend a religious event. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decided this case in the police department’s favor. Fields v. City of Tulsa (10th Circuit. 2014).
For many years, the Tulsa Police Department had found it successful to engage in community policing, by participating in events to build trust with the local community. As part of that mission, the department accepted requests to attend 3,500 community events in an eight-year period. About 10 percent of those, or 327 events, were held at religious venues or institutions affiliated with religious faiths.
In 2010, the FBI notified the Islamic Society of a threat against it. Over the following months, the Tulsa Police Department worked to protect the mosque and the school next door. When the threat was over, the Islamic Society decided to hold an event to thank the police department for its help. Webster asked for volunteers to attend the event.
When there were no volunteers from Fields’ command, Major Harris, who reported to Webster and was Fields’ superior as well, forwarded an email from Webster ordering each shift to send two officers and a supervisor or commander to the event. The email read:
We are directed by DCOP Webster to have representatives from each shift—
2nd, 3rd and 4th to attend. Here is his note to me:
Re that attached, I have advised Ms. Siddiqui to expect small-group visits at [11:00,
1:30, and 4:30]. Please arrange for two officers and a supervisor or commander from
each of your shops to attend at each of those times. They can expect to be at the
facility for approximately 30 minutes but can stay longer.
Fields clearly and knowingly disobeyed the order, and was ultimately transferred to a graveyard shift and given a written warning as a result. Fields filed suit.
The Tenth Circuit found that the order to attend the event did not require Fields to violate his personal religious beliefs. He could have followed the order by ordering others to attend. The court also held the order did not violate the Establishment Clause because no informed, reasonable observer would have perceived the order or the event as a government endorsement of Islam. The order did not burden Fields’ right of association because it did not interfere with his right to decide what organizations to join as a member. Finally, Fields’ retaliation claim failed because the interests of the police department as an employer outweighed his free-speech interests.
This case points out that when a public employee is required to attending a religious event to further the goals of the public agency, there is no constitutional protection, as long as certain precautions are followed.