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GEORGIA HEAT: Eric Walsh’s Refusal to Surrender Sermons Creates Firestorm

While the state has made a step in the right direction, First Liberty attorneys say more still needs to be done to restore religious freedom for Walsh.

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November 4, 2016
Walsh press Conference

First Liberty client Dr. Eric Walsh took a bold stand last week against the State of Georgia — a stand that is already making a difference.

After the State of Georgia fired Walsh in 2014 from his position as a Director of Public Health over sermons he preached on the weekends, Walsh and First Liberty sued the state for religious discrimination. As part of the ongoing lawsuit, the Georgia state government issued a Request for Production of Documents in September.

Fulfilling the request would have forced Walsh to produce all his previous sermons, sermon notes and transcripts for government review and investigation.

“This is an excessive display of government overreaching its authority,” Jeremy Dys, First Liberty Senior Counsel said at the time.

At a press conference on October 26, Walsh announced his refusal to comply with the unconstitutional demand to turn over his sermons.

“My faith has fueled me and I want to be able to protect the faith of others,” he said. “So I really have no intention of turning over the sermons or some of the other things as my lawyers have outlined.”

When asked how important his sermons and sermon notes were, Walsh replied that these documents were first and foremost spiritual and “theological,” He said, “When you go to prepare a sermon, the first thing you ask for—at least for most pastors—is the presence of the Holy Spirit. That transcends things . . . you are now responding to a higher calling.”

GEORGIA DROPS SOME DEMANDS — BUT NOT ENOUGH

Soon after the press conference, the state retreated on demand 18, the demand for Walsh’s sermon notes and transcripts.

“Only after enormous outcry from around the country did the State of Georgia withdraw its request for Dr. Walsh’s sermon notes and transcripts,” Dys said.

However, the State of Georgia has not withdrawn their legal demands for:

  1. Validation of Dr. Walsh’s credentials as a minister.
  2. Proof that Dr. Walsh has served as a minister with the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.
  3. Production of any and all contracts Dr. Walsh has, or has ever had, with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, its subsidiaries or affiliates.
  4. A report to the State of Georgia on how—and how much—he has been compensated for publicizing his sermons.

Yet according to Walsh and his attorneys, none of that should be relevant to his employment.

“I want us to draw a line in the sand and say, listen, when people are applying for jobs, their religion is not to be considered,” Walsh said at the press conference.

As Dys explained before the news media, it is in fact illegal to consider a person’s religion when hiring them — or firing them.

“The state is not entitled to validate a minister’s credentials,” explained Dys. “The government may not demand that a pastor prove he has served with a religious denomination or, worse, require a pastor to disclose a contract between a religious denomination and its religious leader. And, there can be no justification for a state to demand to know how a pastor is compensated for his sermonizing.”

AMERICANS SIDE WITH WALSH

Representatives from Concerned Women for America and the Family Research Council stood behind Walsh during the press conference last Wednesday. The Family Research Council is also supporting First Liberty’s case by calling on all Americans to stand against the State of Georgia’s unconstitutional actions by signing a petition — which over 40,000 people have now signed.

Georgia State Senator Marty Harbin, also present at the press conference, called the government’s actions an “invasion of privacy” and an attempt to “drag this case out with information that is not relevant to the facts of what his qualifications are as an individual for that job.”

“We are a people of faith here, and we need to stand beside those that are people of faith as well,” Harbin continued. “And our religion should not stop us from serving in any government or elected position. If you read the Georgia constitution it’s very clear on that.”

Congressman Doug Collins also spoke out in support of Walsh, calling the state’s actions “alarming,” while Congressman Jody Hice, himself a pastor, said the government was “using fear and intimidation to silence pastors.”

GEORGIA’S GOV. DEAL REPRESENTS A BIGGER PROBLEM

The state of Georgia doesn’t have the best religious freedom track record.

Last year Republican Governor Nathan Deal vetoed a religious liberty protection bill that would have protected people like Walsh. Also in 2015, the state fired Kelvin Cochran from his position as Atlanta Fire Chief for a book he wrote in is private time — a book in which he expressed his religious beliefs.

Now, Gov. Deal has appointed a new attorney general, replacing Attorney General Sam Olens who recently became president of a Georgia college. If the new attorney general maintains the state’s current attitude toward religious liberty, “every pastor, every priest, every rabbi, ever imam in this state should be scared to death,” Dys said.

The problem isn’t limited to the state of Georgia, however.

In 2014, five pastors in Houston, Texas were issued a subpoena demanding copies of their sermons. Earlier this year, a commission in the state of Iowa released a brochure stating it had the authority to dictate how churches used their facilities and even what they taught. Last year the city of Houston attempted to seize two churches through eminent domain, and a church in New Orleans was subjected to discriminatory regulations.

“Governor Deal’s administration, from his rejection of religious liberty legislation to his appointed commissioner over the Georgia Department of Public Health to the Office of Attorney General, has permitted an environment in Georgia’s government that appears hostile to religious liberty,” Kelly Shackelford, First Liberty President and CEO said. “We hope Governor Deal will actively work throughout his administration to resolve this matter, and restore Dr. Walsh’s career, sending a message that Georgia is committed to protecting religious freedom for all Americans.”

News and Commentary is brought to you by First Liberty’s team of writers and legal experts.

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