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Bel Air police officer under internal investigation for preaching in uniform; he may have violated Constitution, experts say

Bel Air Police Officer Matthew Gullion, who is also the pastor of Harvest Community Church, is under internal investigation by the department after he wore his uniform while preaching in three separate videos, including this one posted April 10, on the church's Facebook page. Legal experts say he may have violated the establishment clause of the constitution while doing so. This is him in Rockfield park after responding to a call, with the church's live stream on the left?
Bel Air Police Officer Matthew Gullion, who is also the pastor of Harvest Community Church, is under internal investigation by the department after he wore his uniform while preaching in three separate videos, including this one posted April 10, on the church's Facebook page. Legal experts say he may have violated the establishment clause of the constitution while doing so. This is him in Rockfield park after responding to a call, with the church's live stream on the left? (Screenshot of Harvest Community Church Facebook page)

It was not a typical church scene. The pastor did not have an altar to stand at; he did not wear religious vestments; he led no hymns. Instead, he was clothed as a police officer, ministering to the faithful from his cruiser with the police radio crackling behind his sermon.

The Bel Air Police Department is conducting an internal investigation into a uniformed officer who appears to be preaching Christianity on the job in videos posted to Facebook, Bel Air’s Chief of Police Charles A. Moore Jr. said Monday. It’s an act that clearly runs afoul of the establishment clause, legal experts said.

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The officer, Matthew Gullion, has been the pastor of Harvest Community Church in Harford County since September 2017, according to the church’s website, and has served as a police officer in Bel Air for over 17 years, Moore said. From March 29 to April 10, three videos were posted to the church’s Facebook page of him in uniform — and appearing to be on the job at least twice — promoting Christianity to a social media audience.

In the first video, which runs 2 minutes and 40 seconds and was posted March 29, Gullion offers a reading of Hebrews 12 while sitting in a police car and wearing the badge of a Bel Air police officer. He says that another person will “be bringing the word” that day, but goes on to read from the New Testament. Muted radio chatter can be heard at points in the video.

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“I am working my primary job today,” he says in the video. “I wanted to bring you just a quick word of encouragement."

Posted about two weeks later, Gullion reads more scripture from inside a vehicle, saying that he was just getting off work. He reads selected passages and elaborates on them — again, in uniform.

In the third video, posted April 10 — Good Friday — Gullion pops in and out of the church’s live stream toward its beginning and end. He was interrupted, he explains, by a call for service. Stepping out of his car into Rockfield Park, which has been closed since March 23, he speaks about the impact the novel coronavirus is having on religious services — closing churches and limiting gatherings — before leading communion and reading Mark 14 from a thick, bound book.

Gullion acknowledges he is not allowed to have wine on the job, so he substitutes it with a soft-drink for the ceremony.

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“We are going to end this service with holy communion,” he says, adjusting a knob on the radio at his hip. “I have never taken communion in uniform or on-duty, but you know what, we are going to do that because these are the times we are in.”

Those actions, professor of law at George Washington University’s School of Law Catherine J. Ross said, are in violation of the establishment clause, which prohibits the state from “respecting an establishment of religion.”

In this case, Ross said, Gullion was a “state actor," or working for the state. The establishment clause proscribes government endorsement of religion, she said, because the framers believed government advocacy of religion would harm both institutions.

"The concerns that I think this clearly implicates include the founders’ notion that, when there was an established church, it damages democracy and also that it damages religion.” she said. “When people think that the state and the church are one, they tend to become less religious, and they confuse the two domains of here on earth and the religious sphere.”

It becomes damaging when citizens with differing views come to feel like outsiders, she said, an issue a state agent’s endorsement of religion could raise. Official state support for a particular religion raises the specter of bias against those who choose a different faith or those who are not religious, Ross said.

“Anything that makes people feel like outsiders really damages the body politic and has implications for democracy,” Ross said. "They will get the impression that the police force — and through the police force, the state — is treating them as outsiders.”

Regents Professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law Mark Graber said, the issue was clear and even teachable.

"This is the example you give to your students when you want to make sure everybody understands the basics,” he said. “I assume that is not his job description.”

Graber said there is also a prohibition on state money going to support religious advocacy and establishment, which is applicable to public employees who are paid by taxpayers. The question becomes complicated when considering a church playground that could be funded by the state, for instance, but Gullion’s case was clear-cut.

“Taxpayers have a right that their tax money does not go to endorsing religion,” Graber said. “That was the most basic thing about establishment, is tax dollars do not support religion.”

Ross said that there are no black-letter penalties for violating the clause. The only remedy for a violation is a lawsuit, often done by a public interest group like the ACLU on behalf of others. From there, the court can order agencies, or even entire states, to devise rules to prevent a violation happening again.

“The only way to enforce a claim that the state has violated the establishment clause is somebody has to step up and bring a lawsuit to enforce the constitution,” she said.

The police department, Moore said, was first made aware of the posts on Monday and would have the videos taken down immediately. Gullion was also directed to stop making them. The videos were not available on the church’s Facebook page Tuesday morning. Gullion has not been placed on leave, Moore said.

Officers, Moore explained, are given guidelines on usage of social media and have to abide by a code of conduct. He said Gullion will be “held accountable if violations are found," but said it could have been mistake or lapse in judgment on the officer’s part, which the investigation will determine. He stressed that the police department treats all people fairly.

“The Town of Bel Air and the Bel Air Police Department treats everyone equally and with respect, dignity, and in an unbiased manner, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual preference, etc,” he wrote in an email Tuesday. “This officer’s social media post and religious beliefs are not a representation of the beliefs or opinion of the Town of Bel Air nor the Bel Air Police Department.”

Gullion did not respond to emailed questions Monday.

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