- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 7, 2002

Prison officials in Minnesota violated the constitutional rights of three state employees who were punished for reading their Bibles during a diversity training session on homosexuality, a federal jury has concluded.
Minnesota's Department of Corrections violated free speech and equal protection rights of the employees during a 1997 state-mandated training session and discriminated against them on the basis of their religion, the nine-member panel unanimously agreed.
The jury awarded the employees, who sued the state, more than $78,000 in damages. The verdict came last week following a three-day trial in U.S. District Court in St. Paul.
"This jury verdict sends a very loud message to government officials that they cannot single out and punish employees for their religious beliefs," said Francis J. Manion, senior counsel for the Virginia-based American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), an international public-interest law firm that represented the employees
"The jury clearly let the state of Minnesota know that punishing employees for expressing their religious views is not only wrong, but violates their basic constitutional rights as well," Mr. Manion said.
Officials of the state's Department of Corrections declined to comment on the ruling, which it has appealed.
The ACLJ filed the lawsuit in April 1998 against the Department of Corrections in Minnesota on behalf of employees Thomas Altman, Kristen Larson and Ken Yackly, who said the written reprimands they received made them ineligible for promotion for two years.
The employees say the training session, "Gays and Lesbians in the Workplace," was little more than "a state-sponsored indoctrination" aimed at changing their religious beliefs about homosexuality.
Mr. Manion said the employees attended the training session and did not interfere with the presentation when reading silently from their Bibles. Two of the employees also actively participated in parts of the session.
All three employees sat next to their supervisors. They said they were never told to put away their Bibles and later, after an investigation, received written reprimands "for inappropriate and unprofessional conduct," Mr. Manion said.
The employees said the investigation was remarkable because prison officials never investigated or disciplined workers for being inattentive during training sessions, even though some slept or read magazines through similar sessions.
In 1999, a federal district judge found that the actions of the state violated the free exercise of religion. But the judge threw out the rest of the ACLJ suit that focused on free speech and equal protection claims.
The ACLJ appealed that part of the decision to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In May 2001, the court overruled the lower court, ordered that the case go to trial and rejected claims made by the state that the employees were guilty of insubordination
"Our clients never had an issue with the desire of the employer to ensure that co-workers treat each other with respect and dignity," said Mr. Manion, who argued the case before the jury.
"But when the state of Minnesota tried to force these employees to change their beliefs about homosexuality, the government crossed the line and violated their constitutional rights."

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