City of Tulsa prevails in police captain's lawsuit over mosque visit
BY DAVID HARPER World Staff Writer
Thursday, December 13, 2012
12/14/12 at 2:13 AM
Document: View the decision here
A federal judge ruled in favor of the city of Tulsa on Thursday in a lawsuit filed by a Tulsa police captain who refused to attend a Law Enforcement Appreciation Day at an Islamic mosque.
U.S. Chief District Judge Gregory Frizzell wrote that “no reasonable jury” could find that Capt. Paul Fields was ordered to attend the March 4, 2011, event at the Islamic Society of Tulsa’s mosque because “the directive at issue permitted him to assign others to attend rather than attend himself.”
City Attorney David O’Meilia said Thursday evening that Fields “spectacularly overreacted to simple directive” to find officers to attend a community outreach event.
Fields filed his lawsuit on Feb. 23, 2011. Deputy Chief Daryl Webster, the city of Tulsa and Police Chief Chuck Jordan were the defendants.
Fields, who declined to attend the March 2011 event and also refused to order any of his subordinates to attend, was suspended for 40 hours without pay for violating the department’s rule on being obedient and another 40 hours for violating a rule on conduct unbecoming an officer. He also was temporarily transferred from the Police Department’s Riverside Division to another patrol shift at the Mingo Valley Division.
An arbitrator found in September that the city failed to establish that it had ordered Fields to attend or to order others to attend and that the discipline for alleged violation of an order should be reversed. But he found that the discipline for conduct unbecoming an officer should be upheld.
He said Fields should receive pay that was withheld as discipline for violation of an order and should get his former assignment back.
Frizzell said at the outset of a Tuesday hearing that he was not bound by the arbitrator’s ruling in his consideration of the lawsuit.
Robert Muise, co-founder and senior counsel of the American Freedom Law Center — which describes itself as a national nonprofit Judeo-Christian law firm — argued on Fields’ behalf.
Muise told the court that Fields is a faithful, dedicated man whose “very firm religious convictions were put to the test” during the events that spawned the lawsuit.
He said the Law Enforcement Appreciation Day wasn’t just “a barbecue” that happened to occur at a mosque but was an invitation for a religious discussion.
Senior Assistant City Attorney Brandon Burris countered during the Tuesday hearing that Fields was never required to personally set foot in the mosque and that no officer was compelled to attend any religious services during the event.
Muise had argued on Tuesday that Fields was punished for raising a religious objection to an order; however, Frizzell determined that there was no requirement for Fields to attend.
Instead, Fields was directed via e-mail to find volunteers or assign officers to attend the event, the judge wrote.
“Fields could have included himself among those volunteers or assigned individuals, but he was not required to attend,” Frizzell wrote.
Frizzell added, “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.”
The judge noted in his opinion that the directive at issue had a secular purpose.
“It ensured TPD officers would attend an outreach event to further the department’s community policing effort,” Frizzell wrote. “TPD officers have attended scores of events at other religious locations and hosted by religious organizations. The department’s commitment to interact with all Tulsa communities encompasses the Appreciation Day event. No reasonable observer would see the directive as endorsing Islam or disapproving of Christianity.”
Frizzell added that the principal effect of the directive did not advance or inhibit religion nor did the directive “excessively entangle government with religion.”
He added that the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution did not bar the Police Department from directing Fields to identify officers to attend community policing events at religious locations or run by religious groups.
Frizzell commended Jordan and Webster for their “thoughtful response to the Islamic Society’s request for officer attendance, including ensuring the visit’s religious aspects were minimal and not required.” He wrote such steps showed their “conscientious handling of the situation.”
O’Meilia on Thursday evening commended Frizzell for following the law.
Reached by phone on Thursday night, Muise said “I think the judge got it wrong” and added “we like our chances” before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
In granting the defense motions for summary judgment, Frizzell ordered that Fields “recover nothing, the action be dismissed on the merits and the defendants recover costs from the plaintiff.”
Tulsa Police Capt. Paul Fields, who refused to attend a Law Enforcement Appreciation Day at an Islamic mosque, listens as his lawyer speaks to media after a hearing in a civil case at the Page Belcher Federal Building on Tuesday. CORY YOUNG/Tulsa World