Every so often a story arises in South Carolina that gives me hope for what could someday happen here, even though we’re not quite there yet.
Columbia, South Carolina, held their LGBT Pride event last month — as the summer time temperatures and offensive heat would make the event intolerable in June or July — and Columbia’s interim police chief Ruben Santiago asked that eight of his officers march in the parade as a signal of the city’s commitment to inclusiveness.
Again. South Carolina. LGBT. Good news.
However, two of the officers said they didn't want to march, and cited religious beliefs as their reasons for asking to be excused; Santiago wasn’t having it and denied their request. The objections continued and one of the officers started copying emails to City Manager Teresa Wilson's office, going over Santiago's head.
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Santiago, Wilson, Lott
On the morning of the Pride Parade, Wilson had a discussion with Santiago, and what was to have been a mandatory march was suddenly voluntary ALLEGEDLY because there were enough officers to march. The agreement between Wilson and Santiago also stated that there would be no disciplinary action for the officers, whose names were not released.
Still Santiago, while agreeing to the “compromise” said it was not an ideal precedent to set; he says the idea of having his officers march in the parade was about sending a message:
"People see firsthand, 'hey the department is about equality, they are about acceptance.' We want to make sure we instill that so that if they do require our services, they won't hesitate one bit to count on us."
An important message to send. If the LGBT community feels the Columbia police department isn’t out to protect them equally, then why would they bother to even report a crime?
Santiago also added that an “officer cannot choose their assignments based on their religious beliefs. Mind you, we want to make accommodations where we can, but in this case, we went through the process of trying to get volunteers, and ultimately it came down to meeting the needs of that event and that's why the directive was given."
Santiago said the situation is not an ideal precedent to set:
"When you have a police department that really values strict discipline and adherence and obedience to directives, the Chief of Police is the person they look toward for that direction. Any department that expects to instill public trust, must demonstrate that by being visible to the public."
Where does this religious exemption begin and end? Marching in a Pride Parade doesn’t make you gay, or gay-friendly, and doesn’t affect your religious beliefs one iota; it’s part of your job, to protect and serve the entire community. Would it be all right, then, if an officer cited his religious beliefs to not work on Sunday? Or maybe he could use his religious beliefs as an excuse not to break up a domestic dispute in a Muslim home, or investigate a burglary at a gay couple’s house.
You protect and serve, serve, the entire community, not just those with whom you share like-minded faiths.
In addition to the police department, the Richland County Sheriff's Department marched in the SC Pride Parade, and County Sheriff Leon Lott wouldn’t have had it any other way. He agreed with Santiago that an officer's oath precludes them from ignoring lawful orders, and that the city's involvement, doesn't help.
"I would respect their wishes and their position, but I'm also going to say this is something you have to do. A chief or sheriff has to be able to make the decisions, a person that works underneath him are not going to respect them if they don't have the ability to make decisions, and I think that's a problem with the Columbia Police Department, not just now but for many many years."
It’s a parade; it’s not an endorsement of the LGBT community. It’s not an attack on anyone’s faith. It’s a parade, and it’s your job.
Protect. And serve.