Friday, April 29, 2016

Fired for his Faith

Back in May 2014, Dr. Eric Walsh had the honor of working as a district health director for the Georgia Department of Public Health for one whole week. Why such a short employment period you may ask? Many people, including Dr. Walsh himself, have been asking the same question. Unfortunately, the answer is one that has recently raised a lot of conflict: Walsh claims to have been fired by the Department of Public Health after they realized that he was also a lay minister for the 7th Day Adventist Church. The day before he was fired, Walsh is said to have given the state copies of his sermons per their request. 

Walsh recently filed a lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Public Health. He is being represented by First Liberty, which is a large legal organization dedicated to protecting religious freedom in America. The lawsuit explains that, “DPH officers and other employees spent hours reviewing [his religious activities] and other of Dr. Walsh’s sermons and other public addresses available online, analyzing and taking notes on his religious beliefs and viewpoints on social, cultural and other matters of public concern as expressed in the sermons and other public addresses.” Walsh’s sermons are said to have discussed some controversial issues, including anti-gay marriage sentiments, which are consistent with his religious beliefs.  This resulted in the DPH rescinding Walsh’s job offer, even though he had already accepted. 

Walsh and First Liberty view his firing as an unconstitutional form of religious discrimination that should be prevented by the First and Fourteenth Amendments as well as the Civil Rights Act. Jeremy Dys, one of the attorneys for the case, explained, “Religious liberty means we should be able to find sanctuary in our own sanctuary. If the government is allowed to fire someone over what he said in his sermons, then they can come after any of us for our beliefs on anything. We must ensure every American has the right to talk about their faith at church without getting fired or being barred from public service.” Walsh and First Liberty believe that an individual’s religious beliefs and practices in their private life should not have any implications for their employment status. They received an official Right to Sue letter from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which led them to file the lawsuit. 

On the other hand, the Georgia Department of Public Health believes that Dr. Walsh’s sermons, and particularly their controversial topics, are of their concern. Other outside groups, including The Georgia Voice, agree with the DPH. These groups are concerned that the topics and perspectives taken in Dr. Walsh’s sermons will be seen as symbols of the DPH and what it stands for. A member of The Georgia voice, which is a group that advocates on LGBT health issues, said, “Dr. Walsh’s public displays of anti-gay propaganda and religious rhetoric will become symbols of the department and will further isolate an already vulnerable population. We believe this hire is detrimental to the wellbeing of our community, as well as to the effectiveness of the Department to conduct meaningful outreach to LGBT Georgians.” These groups seem to be invoking issues of establishment with the possibility of Walsh’s sermons being seen as representative of the DPH. If his sermons are seen as an expression of the DPH’s own views, then the DPH would be seen as outwardly stating religious views, which it cannot do under the establishment clause. They are also arguing that there is a compelling state interest to protect the wellbeing of the LGBT community, which justifies ending Walsh’s employment with the Department of Public Health. 

The main issue at play in this case boils down to this: Can the Department of Public Health (a federal organization) constitutionally deny employment to an individual because of his religious associations in order to avoid a threat of perceived establishment and to meet compelling state interest in the wellbeing of LGBT individuals? 

I believe that Dr. Walsh should not have been fired from this employment opportunity. First, his religion is completely part of his private life and his sermons a form of private speech. In no way are Walsh’s sermons at his private church a representation of the Department of Public Health’s views. Contrary to the claims of groups like The Georgia Voice, I do not think that a reasonable observer would perceive Walsh’s religious sermons as connected with the DPH since none of his religious activities are performed at work or on any form of government property. The employees of the Department of Public Health likely come from a diverse group of religious backgrounds, so it is not reasonable to suggest that people would find Walsh’s beliefs particularly to be that which the Department endorses. This is similar to the argument made in Rosenberger v. UVA in which the court explained that because UVA has numerous student newspapers with different ideological viewpoints, a reasonable observer would not perceive government endorsement of one particular ideological perspective.  Second, I do not think that the compelling state interest type argument made by The Georgia Voice is accurate. Dr. Walsh is known for being a very successful doctor with a lot of experience and training. He is completely capable of exercising this and has never expressed any indication of his religion impacting how he practices medicine. While a compelling state interest in public health and well-being may be important, Dr. Walsh is completely capable of providing this and has been described as extremely qualified for his position with the Department of Public Health. Because of this, there is no justification in limiting Walsh’s first amendment rights to freely practice his religion in his private life. 

Furthermore, rescinding Walsh’s job offer solely because of his religious beliefs is inevitably an illegal form of religious discrimination. The Civil Rights Act clearly prohibits various forms of discrimination, within which religious discrimination is included. The current case stands in sharp contrast to Hosanna-Tabor v E.E.OC. The important distinction is that Hosanna-Tabor was being fired from her position as a minister and therefore, the ministerial exception applied to her case, meaning that the school she worked at could be exempt from employment discrimination laws. Walsh, on the other hand, is being fired from a completely secular job position because of his religion. This is exactly what employment discrimination laws are meant to protect against.  Walsh should be able to practice his religion in his private life as he chooses, as guaranteed by the first amendment,  without having it impact his employment. 


Caroline S. said...

I agree with Becca's analysis of this case. I think it truly put things into perspective and that you did a good job not demonizing an individual for their private speech. This case is very similar to many of the recent blog posts we have encountered. It begs the question- what draws the line between a public official's public speech and their private speech? I understand that this Dr. is a public official in a certain capacity, however I do not think that private speech in a place of worship should be considered grounds for termination. He is not representing the DPH as a lay minister and his faith has not proven him to be ineffective at his job. You cannot fire an individual for potentially discriminating against another individual- no crime had occurred during his tenure at the DPH and it is impossible to assume that due to his faith, that Dr. Walsh would inevitable discriminate against a potential patient. Firing Dr. Walsh based upon his beliefs is unconstitutional.

Lucy Fishell said...

I agree with Rebecca's stance on this issue. His religion is a private sphere issue, not a public sphere issue; and thus should have no place in deciding whether Dr. Walsh was capable of preforming his job. Denying Dr. Walsh of his job due to his religious beliefs is a clear form of religious discrimination. I thought the quote pulled from Dr. Walsh's lawyer put it best when he said; "Religious liberty means we should be able to find sanctuary in our own sanctuary."Dr. Walsh in his sermons was preaching his own beliefs in his own place of worship; and I agree with Rebecca when she says that he was unfairly fired for his religious beliefs.

Houtan Bozorghadad said...

I was particularly torn with this case because on one hand this man lost his job because of his religious convictions, but on the other hand, companies are not allowed to hire and fire people based on whether or not they would be a good fit to the company. A person should be judged on their ability to perform their work, but they also should be judged on other aspects. If a company believes that someone's religious convictions would become a distraction in the workplace, shouldn't the company have the right to fire them? It would be wrong to fire someone because of their religious beliefs if it was not going to be a distraction, but companies would be allowed to fire people in this case too which is why I think it is unconstitutional to fire someone when you realized what his/her religious convictions were.

Maddie G said...

I agree with Becca! Dr. Walsh was unfairly fired for his religious beliefs. The state of Georgia cannot constitutionally fire an employee simply because it finds his religious views to be objectionable. His sermons are his own speech, not the state's, and when he was fired because of it, I would argue that the state placed an unfair burden on his speech and infringed on his religious belief.