Georgia Gov't Reviewed Pastor's Sermons on Homosexuality Before Firing Him, Documents Show
A public health expert and Seventh-day Adventist pastor was fired by Georgia's Department of Public Health after public officials were assigned to watch and review the content of his sermons on YouTube, official government documents indicate.
On Wednesday, The First Liberty Institute announced that it filed a lawsuit on behalf of Eric Walsh against the DPH, alleging that he was fired by the agency over concerns about his sermons' content on homosexuality.
As it is illegal under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to make employment decisions based on a person's religion, documents and email conversations obtained by First Liberty through the Freedom of Information Act appear to reveal a host of damning charges against the DPH.
According to an obtained email, Walsh, who has a medical degree, doctorate in public health and was appointed to President Obama's Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDs, was hired in early May 2014 and scheduled to begin working for the agency on June 16, 2014.
But as controversy had previously surrounded Walsh's conservative views on marriage in California, when LGBT activists protested his selection as commencement speaker at Pasadena City College, documents indicate that officials at the DPH decided to conduct an investigation of their own into Walsh's view on marriage.
According to an email from May 14, 2014 that was sent by the DPH's human resources executive Lee Rudd, it is clear that a number of employees were specifically assigned to take a few hours and listen to the content of Walsh's sermons.
"OK … I have an assignment for several of us. We have to listen to his sermons on You Tube [sic] tonight. If we take a couple of hours each, then we should cover our bases," Rudd wrote. "I will enlist Dwana [Prince] to help us. Kate [Pfirman, Chief Financial Officer for the DPH] is going to listen to them as well."
Following the review, the lawsuit claims that a meeting was "hastily arranged" the next day by officials to discuss the sermons and Walsh's future with the department.
"The unlawful and discriminatory intent and tenor of the May 15, 2014 meeting compelled DPH general counsel Sidney Barrett to warn not once, but twice, during the same meeting that under federal law Dr. Walsh's religious beliefs could play no role in any employment decision by DPH," the lawsuit states.
Fox News reports that another staffer allegedly warned that Walsh should be hired based on his qualifications.
"Not only is there no smoking gun, there is every reason to believe, even from his detractors own words, that he is the excellent health director we believed he would be," the staffer said according to a document obtained by First Liberty. "If we do not hire this applicant on the basis of the evidence of job performance and disqualify him on the basis of discrimination by those who seek to advance their own agenda and do him harm, I believe we are no better than they are."
Despite the warnings, the officials decided during or after the meeting that they would terminate Walsh's employment opportunity. On May 16, 2014, Walsh's job offer was officially rescinded.
"I couldn't believe they fired me because of things I talked about in my sermons," Walsh said in a statement. "It was devastating. I have been unable to get a job in public health since then. By reviewing my sermons and firing me because of my religious beliefs, the State of Georgia destroyed my career in public service."
Despite the documents obtained by First Liberty Institute, DPH denies that religion played any role in its decision to rescind its offer of employment, claiming that Walsh violated California and Georgia law by failing to disclose a secondary source of income.
"Georgia Department of Public Health policy requires the disclosure and written approval of secondary employment held by its employees," the department said in a statement. "Due to violation of both California state law and DPH policy, the offer to Dr. Walsh was rescinded. During his interview, Dr. Walsh disclosed his religious beliefs to DPH staff and indicated that he preached at his church in California. Dr. Walsh's religious beliefs had nothing to do with the decision to withdraw the offer."
However, Walsh's lawyers contend that he did inform his former employer of his activities and that he was never asked by officials from DPH.
"Dr. Walsh fully informed his former employer of his activities, going above and beyond any alleged obligations regarding forms, and it is unclear whether Dr. Walsh needed to complete the form at all. Nevertheless, Dr. Walsh completed the forms, corrected the forms, and informed his employer," the lawyers wrote. "The factual record shows DPH did not ask about the complicated California reporting process — or about any potential outside employment — during Dr. Walsh's multiple rounds of interviews. In truth, DPH did not care."
Walsh's lawsuit comes as former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran is in the midst of a legal battle against the city after he claims that he was fired because of the mayor's concern about a brief section on homosexuality in a book that he wrote for his Bible study.
"The Left used to say that it wasn't concerned with Christian speech in houses of worship. Instead, it was only focused on 'ending discrimination,'" wrote National Review columnist David French. "But now the Left is the discriminator, seeking to purge vocal Christians from public life."
Additionally, the lawsuit follows Republican Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal's veto last month of a law that would have banned the state government from discriminating against individuals based on their religious objection to same-sex marriage. Deal claimed the law was unnecessary.
"Governor Deal described Georgia as a place where 'our people work side-by-side without regard to the color of our skin, or the religion we adhere to,'" French continued. "But his own government refutes his words. In some parts of Georgia, persecution is the practice."