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Government-Sponsored Chaplains and Crisis: Walking the Fine Line in Disaster Response and Daily Life

42 Pages Posted: 4 Nov 2007 Last revised: 17 Apr 2012

Mary Jean Dolan

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: April 16, 2012


Two significant public issues in recent years have been the limits of partnership between government and religion and government's role in helping citizens cope with disasters. One intriguing intersection of these issues is local governments' use of chaplaincy programs to console victims of trauma, both large-scale and personal. This Article asserts that the constitutional line differs for mass disaster response and the daily human tragedies. There is an important and valid role for clergy and faith-based assistance as part of the broad spectrum of governmental response to terrorism, natural disasters, and public health emergencies. In the everyday crises, however, any governmental facilitation of religious counsel must be a true accommodation based on a victim's request, and not the automatic result of a 911 call. Analyzing Establishment Clause constraints in these two scenarios, moreover, leads to a new model for analysis of all government-sponsored chaplain programs, including the outpatient chaplaincy in the Veterans Administration system, which was recently challenged. The handful of decisions which uphold health care and law enforcement chaplaincies wrongly conflate the direct and indirect paradigms used in evaluating government aid to religious organizations. This Article argues that, in the absence of an accommodation rationale, any governmental provision of exclusively religious personnel or religious counseling to adults made vulnerable by crisis violates the endorsement and coercion tests. An alternative, constitutional method for meeting pastoral counseling needs also is proposed.

Keywords: chaplain, disaster, Establishment Clause, endorsement, coercion, crisis, accommodation, pastoral counseling, religious

Suggested Citation

Dolan, Mary Jean, Government-Sponsored Chaplains and Crisis: Walking the Fine Line in Disaster Response and Daily Life (April 16, 2012). Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 3, 2008. Available at SSRN:

Mary Jean Dolan (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN

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