This week, Liberty Institute, along with our volunteer attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert, filed a complaint on behalf of our client Dr. Eric Walsh with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), charging the State of Georgia Department of Public Health with religious discrimination and retaliation.
The firing of Dr. Walsh gained national attention in several media outlets as a shocking example of anti-religious bigotry. Now the forces of religious liberty have mobilized to launch legal action to defend Dr. Walsh.
The key facts: After interviewing Dr. Walsh and offering him the position of District Health Director, the State of Georgia Department of Public Health hired Dr. Walsh on May 5, 2014, contingent on a routine background check. But only 11 days later on May 16, 2014—before Dr. Walsh’s first day on the job—the State of Georgia Department of Public Health terminated Dr. Walsh in an email because of his religious beliefs.
Officials were caught on voicemail laughing about the cold manner in which they would fire Dr. Walsh.
Why the sudden turnaround? Apparently the Georgia officials became uncomfortable with Dr. Walsh’s activity as a lay minister and member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
“I BELIEVE IN EXPRESSING MY FAITH”
The story began across the country in California, earlier this year. While Public Health Director for the City of Pasadena, California, Walsh—as an accomplished health official and inspiring community leader—was invited to be the commencement speaker for the class of 2014 at Pasadena City College.
However, several college students went looking for ways to discredit Dr. Walsh because they did not like his selection as a speaker. They found videos of his sermons online and complained to the school about his religious views. Due to the controversy, Dr. Walsh ended up withdrawing from the commencement ceremony and was placed on leave from his job as Public Health Director in Pasadena.
“I am a devout member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” stated Walsh in his statement of support filed with his official charge of discrimination with the EEOC. “And as a part of my sincerely-held religious beliefs, I believe in expressing my faith. My faith is important to me; I regularly speak about my faith at churches and religious conferences.”
While on leave, Dr. Walsh applied for the District Health Director position with the State of Georgia Department of Public Health. “During my interview with the State of Georgia, I volunteered information about the situation generated by students complaining about my religious views so that the state would be aware,” Wash said. “In addition, my previous employer spoke directly to senior officials with the Georgia Department of Public Health to explain what had happened with Pasadena City College.”
BEHIND THE SCENES, ANTI-RELIGIOUS MOOD GATHERS
Everything seemed fine. In an email, an official at the Department of Public Health in the Office of Human Resources of the State of Georgia relayed to Dr. Walsh: “Appreciate you sharing the events in California with the team. . . . Always better to hear from the person involved first.”
Dr. Walsh was offered the position and invited to “come on board,” an offer he accepted with enthusiasm. He looked forward to helping the citizens of Georgia, including those vulnerable to health problems—like he had throughout his exemplary career. With a stellar record of community service, Dr. Walsh was in a position to help countless people.
But behind the scenes, Dr. Walsh’s sincerely-held religious views apparently were a problem for the Georgia officials. In an article in the Pasadena Star-News published on May 13, 2014, Ryan Deal, a Georgia public health department spokesman, said that Dr. Walsh had not been officially hired because of a background check taking longer than expected. “That background check has not completed,” Deal stated. “And at this time the Department of Public Health has found areas for further exploration.”
“YOU’RE OUT!” THEN LAUGHTER
On May 16, 2014—the day after Dr. Walsh, at the request of a senior official at the Georgia Department of Public Health, sent his employers a sampling of his sermons—the State of Georgia abruptly and coldly terminated Dr. Walsh’s employment based upon his prior expressions of his sincerely-held religious beliefs.
When two State of Georgia officials called Dr. Walsh to tell him of his termination, they were unable to reach him and had to leave a voicemail. At the end of the call, they must have pressed the wrong button and didn’t hang up—inadvertently recording themselves laughing about terminating Dr. Walsh’s position and the deliberate lack of human warmth with which they planned to do so.
Their words include “cold” and “you’re out!” followed by laughter. Listen to their voice mail and read the transcript.
The State of Georgia then sent Dr. Walsh an email reiterating the intent to terminate his employment with the Georgia Department of Public Health and promised Dr. Walsh a written letter explaining further. But he has still not received this letter.
“No one should be fired for simply expressing his religious beliefs,”said Andrew Coffman, partner in the law firm of Parks, Chesin & Walbert and a Liberty Institute volunteer attorney. “In America, it is against the law to fire an employee for expressing his religious beliefs—especially when that expression takes place at church. This kind of religious intolerance by an employer has no place in today’s workforce.”
The EEOC will now begin an independent investigation of Dr. Walsh’s charges of religious discrimination and retaliation. Should the EEOC agree that the Georgia Department of Public Health is guilty of religious discrimination, it may order broad relief, including back pay, front pay and other significant damages for the unlawful conduct of Dr. Walsh’s one-time employer.
Dr. Walsh’s case is pivotal to our defense of religious liberty. Dr. Walsh is an eminently qualified professional. He is also a lay minister. If Dr. Walsh can be driven from his profession for exercising his religious liberty in the safety of his own church, no one’s liberty is safe. What a minister preaches or a Sunday school teacher teaches should never influence an employee’s annual review.
“This kind of intolerance has no place in today’s workforce,” stated Jeremy Dys, Senior Counsel for Liberty Institute. “People of faith ought to be respected at work, not fired for expressing their religious beliefs at church.”
If religious liberty is not afforded sanctuary in the sanctuary, where can religious liberty be exercised?
FIGHTING FOR AMERICA’S WORKERS
This incident is just one in a line of instances of competent employees being stripped of their jobs because of their expression of religious beliefs outside of the workplace. Liberty Institute is a leader in the fight to preserve religious liberty in the workplace and in the public arena, including in the following cases:
Liberty Institute is the largest organization dedicated solely to preserving religious liberty in America. We are leaders in the fight to protect and defend freedom of religion from increasing attacks, and we win over nine out of every ten of our cases. But we need your help to continue seeking justice for clients like Dr. Eric Walsh.
Please pray as we work to protect and restore the rights of Dr. Eric Walsh, Craig James, Bob Eschliman, Walt Tutka and others who are facing discrimination for off-the-job religious expression. And please give financially to help fight for religious freedom. Because of Liberty Institute’s volunteer attorney model, every $1 you give translates into approximately $6 of legal impact, and we are grateful for your support!
About Liberty Institute
Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit www.LibertyInstitute.org.