Thursday, July 31, 2008

The clash between gay rights laws and religious freedom has acquired two new fronts in recent weeks, both involving Christians who say they were punished on their jobs for actions that reflect religious disapproval of homosexuality.

In one case, a Georgia counselor has filed a federal suit against the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), saying that she was fired after she found someone else to counsel a lesbian about her sexual relationship. In the other, a Los Angeles police officer is suing the department, saying it has denied him promotions and pay raises because of a sermon that he gave at a church that cited a biblical verse on homosexuality.

The Georgia case began last August when Marcia Walden, a licensed associate counselor, was asked by a CDC employee, identified in Ms. Walden’s lawsuit only as “Ms. Jane Doe” to provide counseling for the employee’s same-sex relationship. At the time, Ms. Walden was a counselor with Computer Science Corp. (CSC) - a private company that had been contracted to provide counseling services to the CDC.

According to Jordan Lorence, senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), Ms. Walden concluded that her own religious beliefs that sexual relationships between gays is immoral precluded providing proper counseling to Ms. Doe. Therefore, she sent the CDC employee’s case to a colleague who did not share her religious convictions.

“We’re dealing with a situation where a woman, who is an African-American and a Christian, works with a private company that contracted with the federal government,” said Mr. Lorence, whose group is representing Ms. Walden. “She didn’t feel she could do a good job, so she referred [Ms. Doe] to a counselor down the hall who could see her immediately.”

Ms. Walden had counseled homosexuals in the past, but not with regards to same-sex relationships, her complaint states.

Nevertheless, according to the complaint, she was subsequently accused of homophobia and extensively questioned about her Christian faith by her supervisor. Within three days of her referring Ms. Doe, Ms. Walden was suspended without pay by Computer Science Corp. and fired outright three weeks later.

Her lawsuit, filed earlier this month with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, seeks both punitive and compensatory damages, accusing the CSC and CDC of violating her First Amendment rights, and says the CDC pressured the company into firing Ms. Walden.

CDC spokesman Dave Daigle said it is the agency’s policy “not to comment on personnel matters or matters that are or may be in litigation.”

Computer Science Corp. did not return multiple calls for comment.

Mr. Lorence said his client’s actions were “normal” by professional stan dards, whereby a counselor is not supposed to take on a case in which he sees a potential conflict of values or interest.

“Under their canons of professional ethics, with some regularity, conflicts will come up whereby a counselor will recognizes a personal conflict - maybe the counselor is falling in love with the client, or the client’s problem is too similar to something the counselor experienced while growing up - and refers the matter to another counselor,” Mr. Lorence said.

The complaint states that Ken Cook, the counselor to whom Ms. Walden referred Ms. Doe, later reassured Ms. Walden that she had made the right decision in referring the case to him and that Ms. Doe described the help she received from Mr. Cook as “exemplary.”

The termination of Ms. Walden’s employment presents a real danger to Christians in the workplace, Mr. Lorence said.

“Basically, what the government is saying is that if you have a sincere religious belief that marriage is between a man and a woman, then your beliefs or conscientious objection can never be accommodated in the workplace,” he said, claiming that this leaves religious people with the option of quitting their job, getting fired or violating their conscience.

David Buckel, senior counsel with Lambda Legal, said the conflict between homosexual rights and religious freedom is not new and has always been the case with anti-discrimination laws.

“It’s been the same old clash we’ve had for many years,” said the lawyer with the pro-gay legal defense group.

While Mr. Buckel had not closely followed the cases in question, he said the courts have developed rules for working out conflicting rights, and this balancing act is part of living in a democratic society.

“That’s the challenge,” Mr. Buckel said. “This issue of freedom of religion coming to terms with freedom from discrimination has been around forever.”

Mr. Lorence’s group - which describes itself as a legal ministry dedicated to defending and protecting religious freedom, sanctity of life, marriage, and family - is handling several similar cases of gay rights laws conflicting with religious freedom.

In one of them, a New Mexico photographer was ordered by the New Mexico Human Rights Commission to pay Vanessa Willcock $6,600 for having declined to photograph Ms. Willcock’s same-sex commitment ceremony. That case is currently under appeal, Mr. Lorence said.

Another example is Sgt. Eric Holyfield - a 16-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) who also is pastor of the Gospel Word of Life Apostolic Church.

Sgt. Holyfield filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court against the Los Angeles Police Department on June 19 alleging anti-Christian discrimination. His suit claims the LAPD demoted him and refused him further promotion over a September 2006 eulogy he gave at the Whittier, Calif., funeral of Officer Nathaniel Warthon Jr., whose supervisor he had been.

According to a report in the California Catholic Daily, Sgt. Holyfield quoted a passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians that says “the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God” before going on to list such unrighteous people: adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, drunkards and others.

Sgt. Holyfield was off-duty and in clerical garb for the funeral, which was not LAPD-sponsored, and was giving the sermon at a private chapel at the invitation of his colleague’s family.

But several senior police officers were in attendance, leading to complaints that the sergeant had made comments disparaging homosexuals and adulterers.

According to the lawsuit, Capt. James Craig told him: “I have received a number of complaints concerning you in regards to the funeral. Police officers, community members, clergy people, and as a result, I’m going to have to move you.”

Sgt. Holyfield’s suit claims he has been denied promotions nine times since then.

The sergeant did not return The Times’ requests for a telephone interview.

Officer Marjan Mobasser of the LAPD’s Media Relations Section said the department has not received notification of the lawsuit and does not comment on ongoing litigation against it.

Jesse Romero, a retired 20-year veteran with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, supports Sgt. Holyfield’s legal action and the right of police officers to exercise their religious freedom.

“I believe that we are looking at a case of anti-religious bigotry,” said Mr. Romero, who is now a full-time lay Catholic evangelist.

During his last 10 years with the sheriff’s department, Mr. Romero would preach at Catholic conferences and participate in interfaith debates when off-duty.

“My duties as a police officer and as a Catholic evangelist worked in tandem,” Mr. Romero said, adding there was no professional prohibition against a police officer engaging in Christian ministry on the side.

“The vast majority of police are Christian,” Mr. Romero said. “Our professional obligations are consistent with Christian ethics. We don’t treat people any differently because we disagree with their lifestyle.”

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