December 26, 2014

Tenth Circuit: No First Amendment Violation for Non-Mandatory Attendance Order

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Fields v. City of Tulsa on Thursday, May 22, 2014.

Paul Fields was a captain in the Tulsa, Oklahoma police department (TPD). At the time of the events in question, Captain Fields commanded 26 officers and five supervisors. The chain of command above him was Major Julie Harris, Deputy Chief Webster, and Chief Jordan. After the FBI reported a threat against Tulsa’s Islamic Society, TPD provided protection for the mosque and the school next door. The Society decided to host a “Law Enforcement Appreciation Day” on March 4, 2011, to thank law enforcement for its protection during the threat, and distributed a flyer offering refreshments, mosque tours, and presentations about Islam upon request. The event was not mandatory but RSVPs were requested. When there were no RSVPs by February 17, Major Harris forwarded an email from Webster ordering each shift to send two officers and a supervisor or commander to the event.

Fields responded with an email to his lawyer, Webster, Harris, Jordan, and several of his subordinates, indicating that he would not follow the directive to attend the event and that he felt the requirement to attend the Society event violated his civil rights. Webster responded the following day, noting that the Islamic Society was going to great pains to host the event, Fields was not himself required to attend because he could order his subordinates to attend, and if he continued with his refusal, Fields would be subject to discipline. Fields responded that he had conferred with his counsel and would not attend. He also refused to order subordinates to attend. He was then served with discipline papers transferring him to another division and stating that he would be investigated by TPD Internal Affairs.

Fields filed a complaint, naming Webster as the only defendant, but subsequently amended it to include the City of Tulsa and Chief Jordan. Fields alleged violations of his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion, the Establishment Clause, his right to free association, and the Equal Protection Clause. Fields sought damages, a declaration that his rights had been violated, an injunction prohibiting the enforcement of the policies that led to his punishment, and the expungement from his personnel file of all references to the incident. After some litigation, the district court granted summary judgment for defendants, and Fields appealed to the Tenth Circuit.

First, the Tenth Circuit evaluated Fields’ claim that defendants violated his right to free exercise of religion because of the attendance order. However, Fields was not personally required to attend the Society program — he could have ordered a subordinate to attend in his place — therefore his rights were not violated. Because the attendance order did not violate Fields’ right to free exercise of religion, he was rightly subjected to punishment for his refusal to comply with the attendance order: “An invalid religious objection to an order that does not burden your free exercise of religion does not immunize you from punishment for violation of the order.”

Next, the Tenth Circuit evaluated Fields’ Establishment Clause argument. Fields claimed that the attendance order constituted an official endorsement of Islam by TPD. But the Tenth Circuit responded that Fields’ interpretation was unreasonable given the history, purpose, and context of the order. The Tenth Circuit then analyzed Fields’ free association violation claims, and rejected them because the attendance order did not require Fields to associate with the Islamic Society; he was not required to attend at all. The Tenth Circuit likewise rejected Fields’ claim of violation of the Equal Protection Clause, noting that Fields raised essentially the same arguments for his free exercise claim.

The judgment of the district court was affirmed on all counts.

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