America was gripped last week with the story of one First Liberty client who was fired over the content of his sermons.
Eric Walsh—doctor, lay-pastor and public servant—was terminated in May of 2014 from his position as District Health Director with the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH). First Liberty announced its discrimination lawsuit against Georgia DPH last Wednesday.
Walsh’s story, coupled with the announcement of First Liberty’s lawsuit, garnered a number of big headlines on TV, in print and online.
Appearing on FOX and Friends Sunday morning, Walsh affirmed that if he could be fired for sermons, other Americans could “absolutely” be fired for other things.
Jeremy Dys, First Liberty Senior Counsel who appeared on FOX and Friends with Walsh, agreed.
“If what has happened to Dr. Walsh is permitted to stand, it sets a terrible precedent,” Dys said, “in that, pretty soon, the notes that you take this morning in church or perhaps that Sunday school lesson that you prepared, that then becomes fair game for your annual review. No one in this country ought to be terminated from their job simply because of something they preached in a sermon.”
BROADER CULTURAL ADVANTAGES
Walsh and his attorneys with First Liberty are now awaiting Georgia’s answer to his complaint and a possible hearing, which could occur sometime this summer. But according to Dys, two important advantages have already been achieved, helping to support all employees in America.
The first advantage happened “[w]hen Dr. Walsh decided to stand up for his religious freedom. In so doing, he stood up for the religious liberty of employees everywhere,” Dys said. “If he hadn’t, we wouldn’t even have the chance of setting important legal precedent protecting the religious liberty of even more employees.”
The second advantage? Such widespread media coverage, Dys says.
“Winning courtroom victories is key, but influencing the public discussion about religious liberty at work is just as vital,” Dys said. “After seeing the widespread media coverage that Walsh’s story ignited, employers will think twice before discriminating against their employees on the basis of religion, and more Americans are now aware of their religious liberty rights in the workplace.”
BACKGROUND: FIRED FOR PREACHING
Walsh’s story of discrimination began shortly after Georgia DPH offered him the position of District Health Director in May 2014. Walsh readily accepted and was hired.
Holding both a medical degree and a Doctorate in Public Health, Walsh has served on the Obama administration’s Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDs and as a board member of the Latino Health Collaborative. While working in public health in California, Walsh helped start a city-run, low-cost dental clinic for HIV patients. Walsh also served as an associate pastor with his Seventh Day Adventist Church.
“My faith is important to me,” Walsh said in a statement for the EEOC. “I regularly speak about my faith at churches and religious conferences.”
Shortly after hiring Walsh, DPH officials demanded to see copies of his sermons, and DPH’s Director of Human Resources even sent an email to other DPH employees regarding Walsh’s sermons, stating:
“OK…I have an assignment for several of us. We have to listen to his sermons on YouTube tonight. If we take a couple of hours each, then we should cover our bases.”
Dys put the situation into perspective for FOX and Friends’ audience Sunday morning:
“You’ve got state officials on state time sitting around dividing up sermons that Dr. Walsh has preached, and then they’re going line by line through those sermons to determine a way to able to terminate Dr. Walsh. That sort of thing ought to send chills down the spine of every freedom-loving American.”
Walsh’s sermon topics included following Christ, having compassion on the poor, health, marriage, sexuality, world religions, science, and creationism.
On May 16, 2014—the day immediately after Georgia officials reviewed his sermons—DPH officials fired Walsh, terminating his position with the Georgia DPH.
FIRST LIBERTY LEGAL ACTION—PROTECTING EMPLOYEE RIGHTS
First Liberty joined with co-counsel at law firm Parks, Chesin & Walbert in September 2014 to file an official charge of discrimination with the EEOC on Walsh’s behalf. The complaint charged the State of Georgia DPH with religious discrimination and retaliation. The EEOC responded with a right to sue letter in February 2016.
First Liberty filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia on Wednesday, April 20, 2016.
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