Robert Vernon Is Getting a Raw Deal

"Argument," said theologian John Courtney Murray, "ceases to be civil when it is dominated by passion and prejudice . . . when the parties to the conversation see the other's argument only through the screen of their own categories. When things like this happen, conversation becomes merely quarrelsome or querulous. Civility dies with the death of dialogue."

Civility, unfortunately, has been the first and most conspicuous casualty of the controversy over the religious convictions of Los Angeles' Assistant Police Chief Robert A. Vernon. As the police department's second in command, Vernon heads the department of operations, which oversees the work of patrol officers and detectives, as well as most hiring and promotion.

He also is an active fundamentalist Christian, an elder and lay preacher at the large Grace Community Church in Sun Valley. In that capacity, he has organized weekend religious retreats for other police officers, written two books and, over more than a decade, recorded about 20 cassette tapes on various social and religious issues. Copies of these publications and recordings are sold by the church.

News accounts of what some of these tapes contain set the controversy in motion. In a six-hour series of lectures titled "The True Masculine Role," Vernon argues that "the Bible defines a role for men to fulfill," and that many contemporary social ills derive from their failure to do so.

To be truly happy, Vernon, says a woman must be "submissive" to her husband because "man was created to rule over the woman." A healthy marriage, he says, is one in which the husband is the "head" and the wife is the "body." Therefore, "women's lib is like a body out of control."

"True masculinity" also involves physically disciplining unruly children. "You must break them," Vernon says. "If it takes beatings, you give them beatings. . . . I've spanked kids as old as 16 to 17 years old. . . . All children, not just certain children, are born delinquent. If given free rein, every child would grow up to be killer, a rapist, a thief."

"Homosexuality," Vernon says, "is against God's order."

You may feel you have heard all this before. Perhaps in a previous life--probably in the 19th Century.

However, to the LAPD's critics, many of whom are justifiably exasperated with the department's history of discrimination against women, gays and lesbians, Vernon's remarks are a "smoking gun."

They were alarmed still further when the assistant chief, who believes abortion is murder, disclosed in an interview with the magazine Christianity Today that he consulted his church's elders over how to respond to demonstrations by Operation Rescue. The elders agreed that he could arrest anti-abortion protesters who were breaking the law. If they had not, Vernon has said he would have quit the force. Vernon's critics believe any consultation with church elders over his official duties violates separation of church and state.

City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, citing Vernon's taped comments and allegations by "unnamed" members of the force, asked the Police Commission to determine whether the assistant chief's religious views have influenced the department's policies on promotions or the hiring of homosexuals. Mayor Tom Bradley and other council members supported that request. The Police Commission has asked Chief Daryl F. Gates to investigate the matter and report back by June 30.

Whatever Vernon's convictions, Police Commissioner Stanley Sheinbaum told me: "They are his private views and he is entitled to them. What I am interested in knowing is whether he has allowed his private religious views to impinge on the performance of his duties as a police officer. If he has, that would violate the separation of church and state, which is something that must be maintained as seriously as Chief Vernon's right to his private views."

Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, agrees in principle: "I start from the fact that there is not a single openly gay or lesbian officer on the LAPD," she says. "It also is true that women are not being promoted in anything like the numbers one reasonably would expect. This is despite the fact that the department is under a court order to hire and promote women.

"Vernon is in charge of personnel and promotion, and I think it is fair to ask whether his religious views--to which he obviously has a right--have played a part in creating this situation. I'm absolutely comfortable asking that question."

Others, meanwhile, have questioned Gates' ability to investigate the matter because his wife attends Grace Community Church. The chief has responded by calling the whole affair "a witch hunt."

He's right. So are those who say that Vernon's views are being quoted selectively and out of context. None of the council members, police commissioners or civil libertarians to whom I spoke this week has listened to the tapes. One had read the interview.

I have. They contain other statements that also should be quoted. On one tape, for example, Vernon says, "Separation of church and state is a good principle" that must be maintained. He also says children's religious instruction must occur at home because it is inappropriate in the public schools.

In the magazine interview, he says: "I've heard some officers give testimony of making arrests and then witnessing to the person in handcuffs in the back seat of their car. I don't think that's right. I think that's abusing power. My faith intersects with my work in terms of being fair, keeping my word, telling the truth, not using excessive force."

If Vernon, who declined to be interviewed for this column, is to be judged by what he says, don't these remarks deserve equal weight with those already quoted?

To those of us unaccustomed to fundamentalist discourse, Vernon's approach to complex and far-reaching questions of family relations and child rearing seems disconcertingly ad hoc and anecdotal, even offensive. But in a free and pluralistic society--especially in one like the United States, where the tradition of religious practice remains robust--a fair number of people are bound to hold views disconcerting to many others. I have a cousin, for example, who believes the Virgin Mary makes regular appearances on a mountainside in Yugoslavia.

In point of fact, this disturbing affair involves a confrontation between two serious groups of people acting on behalf of legitimate--indeed, indispensable--rights. On the one hand are those who rightly insist that the police department must not discriminate against anyone. On the other are those who just as correctly insist that no agency of government may hold a man or woman accountable for his or her religious beliefs.

In such a confrontation, the guarantor of civility is due process. And by its standards, Vernon is getting a raw deal. This inquiry did not begin because of something Vernon did, but because of something he said. On that basis and on the word of anonymous accusers, who cannot be seen or confronted and who offer no specific evidence, the police chief has been asked to investigate whether his assistant's private religious convictions have, in some wholly unspecified way, influenced the conduct of his duties.

That is not an investigation; that is a fishing expedition.

Separation of church and state is not a one-way mirror through which the state, isolated and secure, can peer at will into the minds and hearts of its people.

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