Federal Judge Avoids Ruling on First Amendment Case Where Police Were Ordered to Attend Islamic Worship

In an attempt to win over law enforcement agencies in the area, the Islamic Society of Tulsa decided to hold a law enforcement appreciation day, scheduled to take place on Friday, March 4, 2011, since Fridays are the holy day for Muslims.  In their announcement of the event, which was made in January 2011, they said it would include:

“Mosque tours, meeting local Muslim leaders, observing an Islamic worship service, and receiving presentations on Islamic religious beliefs.”

Customarily, any appreciation event is voluntary for officers and they are not required to show up, However, on Feb. 17, 2011, an email from Alvin Webster, Deputy Chief of the Tulsa Police Department required attendance to the event.  Major Julie Harris then forwarded the email to Captain Paul Fields which read in part:

“We are directed by [Webster] to have representatives from each shift—2nd, 3rd, and 4th to attend [the Islamic event.”

Captain Fields is a Christian and believed the order was unlawful and violated constitutional rights.  He expressed his concerns with Major Harris who gave him permission to share them with Deputy Chief Webster.  In his email response to Webster, Fields wrote the he believed the order was:

“…an unlawful order, as it is in direct conflict with my personal religious convictions, as well as to be conscience shocking.  Please consider this email my official notification to the Tulsa Police Department and the City of Tulsa that I intend not to follow this directive, nor require any of my subordinates to do so if they share similar religious convictions.”

Webster asked Fields to reconsider his actions and when Fields said that he could not comply because of his religious beliefs and convictions.  On Feb 21 Fields was then ordered to a meeting with Charles Jordan, Chief of Police.  In that meeting he told Jordan and Webster that he believed the order was unlawful because it forced him to go against his faith and that he believed it was also unlawful to force any of the officers serving under him who shared the same religious beliefs.  At that time, none of his officers had volunteered to attend the Islamic event.

Chief Jordan immediately handed Fields orders stating that he was being removed from his command position and transferred elsewhere.  It also stated that the police department was launching an investigation via Internal Affairs into him and the matter of his insubordination.  Once handed his new orders, Captain Fields no longer had the option of complying with the original order to attendance.  Three days later, Deputy Chief Webster issued a new order to the entire Tulsa police department that attendance at the Islamic appreciation day event was purely voluntary, and that order included Captain Fields’ former unit.  Although the event was now suddenly ruled voluntary for everyone, the police department proceeded with their IA investigation of Fields and in June, they made his punitive transfer permanent and suspended him for two weeks without pay.  In Fields’ Sworn-Employee Performance Evaluation, signed by both Jordan and Webster it stated:

“Captain Fields was disciplined during this rating period for refusing to attend and refusing to direct that officers attend a law enforcement appreciation day at a local mosque….I can’t have a police department where everybody refuses to give – to interact with Muslims because they say it’s their religious reasons.”

Fields filed suit against Chief Charles Jordan and Deputy Chief Alvin Webster.  The American Freedom Law Center took on Fields’ case and argued it before the US District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma.  Chief Judge Gregory Frizzell just issued a sixteen page ruling in the case which was a disappointment to Fields and his attorneys.  Frizzell completely side-stepped around the First Amendment issue of the case by ruling that Fields’ constitutional rights were not violated since the police department contended that he could have assigned the order to any of the officers under his command.  In that decision, Frizzell wrote that:

“No reasonable jury could find Fields was personally ordered to attend [the Islamic event] because the directive at issue permitted him to assign others to attend rather than attend himself.  The issue of whether a directive requiring his personal attendance at the event would have violated his First Amendment rights need not be decided here.”

American Freedom Law Center Co-Founder and Senior Counsel in the Fields case, Robert Muise, commented:

“This ruling is troubling on many levels.  However, this fight is far from over.  Judge Frizzell may have been the first judge to review and decide the important constitutional issues at stake in this case, but he won’t be the last.  We will be appealing this ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.”

“Contrary to the judge’s ruling in this case, the evidence is undisputed and overwhelming that Captain Fields was punished for merely raising a religious objection to the mandatory order, and this included punishing him for refusing to attend the Islamic proselytizing event based on his sincerely held religious convictions.  In short, the judge simply got it wrong.  We are eager to get this case before the Tenth Circuit.”

“One of the tragedies of this case is that the City’s attorneys have decided to publicly vilify Captain Fields by denying the sincerity of his religious beliefs and falsely claiming that his religious objections were motivated by anti-Muslim sentiments.  The bitter irony is that Captain Fields was one of the primary officers involved with helping to protect this mosque from a criminal suspect intent on doing harm, and it was this very incident that served as the justification for the ‘appreciation’ event in the first instance.  Captain Fields, a dedicated and loyal public servant, deserves better treatment than this.”

The judge’s ruling, “the directive at issue permitted him to assign others to attend rather than attend himself,” makes no sense to me because Fields said that he had no volunteers among his officers, which says that he did tell them of the order.  Since none of them volunteered, he did not believe it was lawful to order any of them to comply if they held similar religious beliefs as he did.  Is Judge Frizzell afraid to rule on law and upset the Muslim community?

I wonder what would have happened if it were a Christian or Jewish center that was holding the law enforcement appreciation event and that they planned on having it on Sunday for the Christians or Saturday for the Jews?  Had the same order been given to a Muslim police officer, would that officer have obeyed and attended the religious service, teaching and proselytizing of a religion they believe to be infidel and blasphemous to Islam?

I also wonder why only three days after Fields stood before the chiefs and given the demotion and transfer, the orders were suddenly made volunteer only?  I find it hard to believe it was pure coincidence.

It will be interesting to follow this case as it moves through the courts.