As part of an ongoing lawsuit Walsh filed against the state earlier this year, the Georgia state government issued a Request for Production of Documents in September. Fulfilling the request would force Walsh to produce all his previous sermons, sermon notes and transcripts for government review and investigation.
“The government wants a pastor to hand over copies of all of his sermons, including notes and transcripts, with absolutely zero limitations,” said Jeremy Dys said, First Liberty Senior Counsel. “This is an excessive display of government overreaching its authority.”
It’s also a violation of the sanctity of the church, Dys noted. And others agree.
WORSE THAN THE “HOUSTON FIVE” FIRESTORM
Rev. Dave Welch, one of five Houston, Texas pastors issued a subpoena demanding copies of sermons in 2014, appeared at the press conference with Walsh in Atlanta on Wednesday.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Georgia’s demand is even worse than the Houston Five outrage,” said Welch, head of the Texas Pastors Council (TPC). He continued:
“This is worse than the Houston Five for multiple reasons. This is coming from a whole state—the Georgia attorney general—not one city. And they are demanding more material: sermons, sermon notes, all documents. It could even include margin notes in this pastor’s preaching Bible. It’s almost as if they are ransacking the pastor’s study. This sweeping demand is unacceptable in America, and is a warning to every pastor, every church, every denomination, and every American.”
Why is the state of Georgia demanding Walsh’s sermons as part of the lawsuit—and why is there a lawsuit against the state? The answer—Walsh’s story—is a chilling wake-up call for ministers across the country, Dys said.
FIRED FOR RELIGIOUS BELIEFS
Walsh was hired as a public health director in 2014 by the State of Georgia. But when the state found out that Walsh was also a lay minister and preached sermons on the weekends, they obtained copies of his some of his sermons, divided them among state officials, reviewed the sermons, and then fired Walsh—informing him of the termination via voicemail.
Though the state claims its abrupt termination of Walsh’s employment had nothing to do with his religious beliefs, evidence would suggest otherwise.
“The state insisted that they did not fire Dr. Walsh over his sermons,” Dys said. “If that’s true, why did they demand copies of his sermons?”
After being terminated for his beliefs, Walsh retained First Liberty Institute as legal counsel in 2014. That September, First Liberty filed an official complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on Walsh’s behalf. The EEOC issued Walsh a right to sue letter in February of 2016, and in April, Walsh and First Liberty filed the lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Health.
The state’s Request for Production of Documents—the sermons—came on September 28.
According to attorneys at First Liberty, federal law protects Walsh’s right to talk about his faith inside his church or out of it. In particular, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits the government from firing people over their religious beliefs, especially when a lay minister expresses those beliefs outside of work in a church setting.
GEORGIA’S POOR RELIGIOUS LIBERTY RECORD
Last year, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, a Republican, vetoed a religious liberty protection bill. Deal claimed the law wasn’t needed in Georgia. Events since have called that into question.
The State of Georgia doesn’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to protecting religious freedom.
Kelvin Cochran was the Atlanta Fire Chief and even served as the U.S. Fire Administrator in the Obama administration. But in 2015, he was fired from his job as Atlanta Fire Chief—over a book on Christian beliefs that he authored in his private time. His legal battle is currently ongoing.
Then came the Walsh firing and lawsuit. And now . . . comes the state itself, authorized by Attorney General Sam Olens, soon to be replaced by Deal appointee Chris Carr. But the focus is on Gov. Deal.
First Liberty is prepared to go to court to fight the State of Georgia’s unreasonable request. But if the judge will not withdraw the order and Walsh still refuses to hand over his sermons, Walsh could be fined—or imprisoned.
“It’s bad enough that he was fired for his faith,” Welch said. “But this legal demand for all his private pastoral documentation takes this to a whole new level. We’ve never seen this kind of hostility to pastors in America.”
“The State of Georgia is intruding upon the sanctity of the church,” Dys said. “They’ve made a terrible mistake and it cannot go unanswered.”
He added, “If the government is allowed to bully their way into Dr. Walsh’s pulpit and demand his sermon notes, what part of the church can be considered safe from government intrusion? In fact, every one hearing about this case should ask whether it will be okay for their employer to demand copies of their life group or Sunday school notes or lessons? This case will affect everyone of faith.”
UPDATE: At the time of this story, the State of Georgia has now withdrawn their demand for Dr. Walsh’s sermons, but is still demanding any contracts or agreements he has with his church and denomination, questions of his credentials as a minister and much more.