An appeals court ruled Thursday that top Tulsa police officials didn’t violate a Tulsa police officer’s rights by punishing him for disobeying an order to attend or send subordinates to an Islamic mosque event.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 against Capt. Paul Fields’ claim that the punishment — 10 days of suspension from duty without pay — violated his religious rights. He objected to attending the event, based on his Christian beliefs.
“Because the attendance order did not violate Fields’ right to the free exercise of religion, TPD (Tulsa Police Department) could lawfully punish him for violating it,” judges wrote in a 27-page decision.
The event was a law-enforcement appreciation program by the Islamic Society of Tulsa in 2011 on a Friday, Islam’s holy day. Society members discussed Islamic beliefs during the event.
About 150 Tulsa police officers, plus members of the sheriff’s office, district attorney’s office and FBI attended the event, according to Thursday’s decision.
Fields sued the city, Chief Chuck Jordan and Deputy Chief Daryl Webster. Thursday’s decision affirmed a December 2012 summary judgment against Fields by U.S. District Judge Gregory Frizzell in Tulsa.
Fields challenged Frizzell’s ruling by taking it to the Denver-based appeals court. He was represented by the American Freedom Law Center, Ann Arbor, Michigan, which characterizes its work as “advancing and defending America’s Judeo-Christian heritage through litigation and public policy initiatives.”
“The attendance order did not burden Fields’ religious rights because it did not require him to violate his personal religious beliefs by attending the event,” the appellate judges wrote. “He could have obeyed the order by ordering others to attend, and he has not contended on appeal that he had informed his supervisors that doing so would have violated his religious beliefs.”
The judges also decided that the order “did not violate the Establishment Clause (of the First Amendment’s protection of religious rights) because no informed, reasonable observer would have perceived the order or the event as a government endorsement of Islam.”
Fields’ claim of free-speech retaliation “would fail because the interests of the Tulsa Police Department outweighed Fields’ free-speech interests in filing his suit,” the judges stated.
Tulsa police participation in the event was part of its long-standing community policing practice of participating in events to build trust. Over the years, officers attended hundreds of events at religious venues or sponsored by religious organizations, the judges stated.
The 2011 event was a “thank you” for Tulsa police’s protection of the mosque and adjacent school after a threat in 2010 against the Islamic Society.
Fields asserted that the event included proselytizing, unlike other events officers had attended, and promoted Islam. None of his subordinates volunteered to attend, he told his supervisor. He told Jordan and Webster he believed the order was unlawful.
Jordan suspended Fields, then a shift commander in the Riverside Division, for disobeying the order and for conduct unbecoming an officer.
In statements to The Tulsa World, attorneys for Fields and for the city had disparate reactions to Thursday’s decision.
“The court is wrong, and we intend to seek full court review of this patently erroneous decision,” said Robert J. Muise, lead counsel for Fields.
“We have argued throughout this case that Capt. Fields was summarily punished for raising a religious objection to the order mandating attendance at the Islamic event, and that such discriminatory treatment violates the First and Fourteenth Amendment,” Muise said. “Yet, inexplicably, the 10th Circuit refused to address this main issue on appeal, claiming that it was not raised below.”
The Tulsa City Attorney’s Office stated that the city, Tulsa Police Department, Jordan and Webster “are gratified by the decision of the 10th Circuit Court. We must decline further comment at this time given the potential for continued litigation,” said Gerald Bender, the city attorney’s manager of litigation.