A former volunteer chaplain of the Austin Fire Department in Texas claims he was fired after he objected to men competing in women's sports on his blog, an action that allegedly offended some LGBT members of the department.
Attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal organization specializing in religious freedom and free speech cases, filed a lawsuit on Dr. Andrew Fox's behalf Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.
Fox, a minister ordained by the Assemblies of God, volunteered as the city's lead chaplain for eight years, providing supportive services to firefighters and their families who had experienced tragedies.
The ordained minister maintains a personal blog. Last June, he voiced his belief that men should not compete on women's sports teams due to biological differences between the sexes, according to the lawsuit.
"No one ever accused him of discriminating against anyone or treating anyone improperly," the complaint reads. "To the contrary, the City lauded him for his integrity and service. Dr. Fox consistently shared his religious and philosophical reflections online for years without any problem."
"To remedy these unconstitutional actions and to protect the rights of Austin personnel to hold and profess different views, Dr. Fox brings this suit because Defendants retaliated against him for exercising his First Amendment rights, violated his First Amendment right to free speech and free exercise of religion, and violated the Texas Constitution," the complaint continues.
The court filing argues that Fox's views are within the "mainstream of political discourse," noting that many states have begun to enact bans preventing biological males who identify as female from competing in girls' sports.
"The Austin Fire Department appreciates Dr. Fox's service as a volunteer chaplain," the department wrote Friday in response to an inquiry from The Christian Post.
"However, we do not expound on matters involving personnel and/or those affiliated with our department in an official capacity."
Anonymous fire department members reportedly took offense to the chaplain's posts and complained. Last August, Assistant Chief Rob Vires emailed Fox and Chief Joel G. Baker to schedule a meeting to discuss the issue.
During the meeting, the assistant chief informed the chaplain that the blog post offended some LGBT department members, but he did not know who. Fox assumed the issue was resolved after he contacted the department's LGBT liaison, who also did not know which members found the post offensive.
The chaplain met with Vires again in October to discuss the blog posts, which allowed anyone to comment. Vires shared the comments with Fox, with some accusing him of "male chauvinism, racism, and transphobia."
One commentator reportedly wrote that "It's inexcusable to have Dr. Fox offered as a spiritual leader and allow him to push his ideologies onto unsuspecting folks seeking spiritual guidance."
Vires told Fox he should write an apology letter to the department's LGBT community.
Later that month, Fox drafted an apology letter explaining his commitment to serving anyone regardless of their characteristics and his efforts to reach the LGBT community.
The first draft was rejected, with Vires clarifying that Chief Baker wanted a shorter letter with an explicit apology for any potential harm he caused. Fox shortened the letter, maintaining the position he outlined in the blog post but stating that he did not mean to offend anyone.
Fox submitted the edited letter to Vires on Dec. 1, writing that he regretted that some people were offended, but he would not recant his religious beliefs. A few days later, Chief Baker informed the chaplain that he was dismissed.
According to the complaint, Baker sent a formal dismissal letter stating that Fox was dismissed "to ensure that all of the Department's volunteer chaplains provide a comforting and welcoming presence and service for any and all firefighters and Department employees."
Fox wasn't allowed to keep his fire department badge and uniform, which is generally permitted when someone retires from the department so they can wear the uniform in retirement for ceremonies.
"The net result of the Fire Department's actions was to punish Dr. Fox for his own personal speech — unrelated to his job duties — on religious views held by tens of millions of orthodox Christians," the lawsuit states. "Neither Dr. Fox's speech nor his religious views interfered with his ability to provide high-quality chaplaincy services to the Fire Department, nor did
they cause any legitimate disruption."
ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Banger believes that everyone should be able to "speak freely without fear of the government coming after you just because you expressed a view they disagree with."
"Dr. Fox served Austin's fire department—without pay—for eight years with excellence and integrity, treating everyone equally, including those in the LGBT community. But none of that mattered to city officials when he shared one opinion on his personal blog that they didn't like," Banger said.
"No matter your personal view on whether men should be allowed to compete on women's sports teams, it should deeply concern every American that the government can fire someone for expressing it."
In 2018, the city of Atlanta reached a $1.2 million settlement after then-mayor Kasim Reed fired Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran for distributing a book at work that included a page detailing his Christian beliefs about sexual morality. Cochran was also represented by ADF, a national organization that has won several religious freedom cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In another case last year, the Virginia Supreme Court granted an appeal to review a lower court decision favoring an elementary school teacher who criticized a policy requiring staff to use students' preferred pronouns. The court agreed to keep the injunction reinstating the teacher in place.
Byron Tanner Cross, a physical education teacher at Leesburg Elementary School in Virginia, sued the Loudoun County School Board for suspending him after he spoke out against Policy 8040 during a school board meeting. The teacher cited his faith as the reason why he could not comply with the requirements to use trans-identifying students' preferred pronouns.
"Looking to federal precedent as persuasive, it is settled law that the government may not take adverse employment actions against its employees in reprisal for their exercising their right to speak on matters of public concern," the order reads.