- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 22, 2001

A federal appeals court has upheld a lower court ruling that found the state of Missouri erred when it fired a religious social worker who opposed the state's policy of licensing homosexuals as foster parents.
"This is an important decision that underscores the fact that the government cannot discriminate against employees because of their religious beliefs," said Francis J. Manion, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which represents the social worker, Larry Phillips, in the case.
The Phillips case began in 1996, soon after the Baptist family man was dismissed from his job overseeing 80 foster homes after protesting, on religious grounds, Missouri's efforts to recruit homosexuals and lesbians as foster parents.
Mr. Phillips, now 47, resisted when he was ordered to grant a foster parent's license to an admitted lesbian.
He was even more concerned when his employer, the Missouri Department of Social Services, placed a young girl struggling with her sexual identify in that lesbian's home.
When Mr. Phillips questioned the placement, he was told by his openly homosexual supervisor that his religious beliefs were hindering his ability to do his job.
Gene Kapp, a spokesman for the ACLJ, said yesterday that Mr. Phillips was terminated on Nov. 18, 1996, both because of his religious convictions and "in retaliation" for an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint he filed against his employer a few days earlier.
A federal lawsuit that the ACLJ filed on Mr. Phillips' behalf in 1997 accused the state of violating his constitutional right to religious freedom.
The suit charged that the state discriminated against Mr. Phillips because his religious convictions prevented him from sanctioning homosexuals as foster parents. The ACLJ, based in Virginia Beach, is a public-interest law firm that focuses on constitutional issues.
A verdict by a federal jury in October 1999 went against the state and assessed compensatory and punitive damages totaling $26,000. Six months later, a federal judge affirmed the jury's verdict and awarded Mr. Phillips compensation for attorneys' fees that came to nearly $60,000.
The Missouri attorney general's office then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit in St. Louis.
In a 13-page opinion released Thursday, a three-judge panel of the appellate court concluded it is "unlawful" to seek the "termination of a subordinate based on that employee's request for accommodation of his religious beliefs."
"The appeals court understands that the state of Missouri went too far in utilizing its heavy-handed tactics," said Mr. Manion.
"The actions of the state amounted to nothing more than state-sponsored religious discrimination."
Given the string of successes Mr. Phillips has enjoyed in the courts, Mr. Manion said, "We hope the case ends here."
But he stressed that if the state of Missouri appeals again, "we will continue to vigorously defend our client's constitutional rights."
Scott Holste, spokesman for the state attorney general's office, said yesterday, "We're still reviewing the opinion" and have not decided whether to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. He declined to give any other comment on the 8th Circuit's ruling.
David M. Smith, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest homosexual rights advocacy group, declined to recommend further litigation by the state until he has read the full opinion.
But Mr. Smith did say: "Diversity of religious beliefs should be respected, as long as they don't influence public policy that should treat all people fairly."

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