Court Affirms CDC's Firing of Counselor Over Same-Sex Advice

A federal appeals court in Atlanta maintained an earlier ruling that the rights of a former counselor at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were not violated when she was fired for refusing to advise an employee in a same-sex relationship.

On Tuesday, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Northern District of Georgia dismissed Marcia Walden's lawsuit against the CDC, two of its employees, and the Computer Sciences Corporation, affirming that summary judgment be granted to the defendants.

The panel agreed with a district court that Walden failed to establish a cause for religious discrimination and that her religious and free exercise rights were not substantially burdened when she was removed from her counseling position at the CDC.

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The Alliance Defense Fund, which represented Walden, expressed disappointment over the ruling and stated that they would continue to act on behalf of their client until she was "vindicated."

"A counselor who is a Christian shouldn't lose her job for upholding the highest professional standards," ADF Senior Counsel Byron Babione commented. "It is unlawful to punish a Christian for abiding by her faith, particularly when she made every effort to accommodate the interests of a potential client."

"We are disappointed that the court ruled against these fundamental principles, but we are determining next steps to ultimately vindicate Marcia and the freedoms for which she's fighting."

The lawsuit was brought before the court in 2008, after Walden was let go as a contract counselor for the CDC's Employee Assistance Program, which provided health and wellness services to its employees.

The Computer Sciences Corporation managed and staffed the CDC clinics and had hired Walden in 2006 to work as an EAP counselor. The CDC, however, could request the removal of an EAP employee at any time if they found someone unfit for duty.

In 2007, Walden refused to provide counseling to an employee at CDC because it conflicted with her religious beliefs – describing herself as a "devout Christian who believes that is immoral to engage in same-sex sexual relationships" – and referred the employee to another colleague.

"I looked at her, and I told her that I could see she was in pain, and I wanted to make sure she got help," Walden said, according to court documents. "But after hearing what she had to say, based on my personal values, I recognized I was not the best counselor for her ... I also told her that I realized that my personal values would interfere with our client/therapist relationship, and that wasn't fair to her."

Feeling "judged and condemned" by Walden's explanations and conduct, the CDC employee contacted Gordon Hughes, CSC's EAP director and supervisor to Walden, and complained.

Hughes in turn, suggested to Walden that during future conflicts, she tell clients seeking same-sex relationship advice that she was inexperienced with relationship counseling rather than stating that her personal values required her to refer the client to other counselors.

Walden refused to do so, saying that she would be lying to the client, rejecting the alternative approach as dishonest.

Other authorities and managers were then advised of the situation and the CSC launched an investigation.

Although they understood that it might be necessary for counselors to make referrals due to religious conflicts, the CDC found Walden's approach and manner of objecting to same-sex clients troubling and potentially able to "undermine the EAP program's effectiveness."

When the CDC leaders spoke with Walden and asked her to tell clients that her refusal to counsel them was based on inexperience rather than personal beliefs, Walden reaffirmed that she could not lie and was unwilling to change her approach in future situations, not offering any alternative approaches as well.

As a result, the CDC asked CSC to remove Walden from the contract before the CSC concluded their investigation.

The CSC then laid Walden off and also provided her with resources to help her find another job within the company, allowing her to retain her tenure with CSC if she found a new position within one year. She did not, however, apply for any new positions though she logged into the CSC's website to see if there were job openings.

In July 2008, Walden filed action against the CSC, CDC and two CDC officials for violating her free exercise and free speech rights, also asserting a due process claim and a Title VII religious discrimination claim against the CSC.

A district court dismissed Walden's claims, which led to her appeal to the federal court.

Circuit Judge Stephanie Seymour noted on Tuesday that Walden failed to establish that her firing was a result of religious discrimination and that her religious and free exercise rights were violated in her termination.

"Ms. Walden ... failed to provide evidence that her religiously-based need to refer Ms. Doe was a 'substantial or motivating' factor in Dr. Chosewood and Ms. Zerbe's (CDC officials) decision to have her removed from the EAP contract," the judge wrote.

"As discussed ... undisputed facts in the record show that Dr. Chosewood and Ms. Zerbe asked for Ms. Walden's removal from the contract because of how she handled Ms. Does referral and because they believed Ms. Walden would not alter her behavior in similar circumstances in the future, not because of her religious views or her need to refer clients for religious reasons.

"Accordingly, the district court properly granted summary judgment."

The ADF and Walden are currently deciding whether to appeal for the second time.

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