Georgia settles with doctor in religious freedom case
Religious Liberty | Eric Walsh sued because the state fired him after asking for copies of his sermons
by Bonnie Pritchett
Posted 2/10/17, 03:48 pm
The state of Georgia settled a discrimination lawsuit brought against it by a physician-preacher who accused the state of firing him for his religious speech outside the workplace. The state, which had demanded Eric Walsh turn over his sermons as evidence, awarded the former employee $225,000 in damages.
Walsh, a public health physician and former lay pastor at a Seventh Day Adventist church, was fired in 2014 from his new job as district health director of northwest Georgia. He sued the Department of Public Health (DPH) for unlawful termination. His employers requested copies of his sermons right after he was hired, and the Georgia attorney general asked for them again during the lawsuit. Walsh refused, and the state withdrew the demand and requested mediation.
The settlement is not an admission of guilt but a win nevertheless for free speech and exercise of religion, said one of Walsh’s attorneys, Jeremy Dys, senior counsel for First Liberty.
“This is a clear and resounding victory for religious freedom,” Dys said in a press release. “The state of Georgia was right to settle this case and acknowledge the right of their employees to express their religious beliefs.
Walsh told me being fired by DPH blemished his resume and sidelined him from his career in public health—work he believes God called him to do.
Georgia DPH officials called him, too. Impressed by his work in California as a physician and advocate for the healthcare needs of HIV and AIDS patients and the poor, agency officials lauded Walsh as their “favorite” candidate and even recommended offering him a higher salary than originally proposed.
But one week after Walsh accepted the job in May 2014, state officials asked him for copies of his sermons. Lee Rudd, DPH director of human resources, emailed department employees assigning each of them the task of listening to additional sermons posted online. The next day, Walsh received a voicemail telling him, without explanation, he had been fired.
That call did not disconnect, and continued to record an incriminating group conversation among DPH officials. The recording, plus the email, added to the 800 pages of documents Walsh’s attorneys amassed to prove their client was fired for his religious speech outside of work.
“We have never seen an instance as egregious as this of the state government intruding upon the sanctity of the pulpit. That is a gross violation of the First Amendment,” Dys said during an October press conference announcing Walsh would not submit his sermons.
Walsh’s case is not unique to Georgia. Former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran is still awaiting adjudication of his case against the city. In February 2015, he sued Atlanta, claiming the city retaliated against him for the content of a book he wrote, which included six pages detailing God’s design for human sexuality. A fire department employee who disagreed with Cochran’s published views complained to city administrators. Mayor Mohammad Kasim Reed and gay councilman Alex Wan publicly upbraided Cochran’s Biblical views on sex. In firing Cochran, Reed charged the chief’s views on sex were discriminatory, but he could find no evidence his treatment of employees violated city policy.
In December 2015, a judge ruled Cochran’s case could move forward.
Dys told me the two cases, though distinct, share a troubling common thread that pits a state employee’s public expression of faith against government nondiscrimination policies. He said, so far, the employees have been vindicated.
With his name cleared, Walsh told me he hopes to be back in a public health job soon.
“That is my passion,” he said.
Other than an 11-month medical mission trip, Walsh has spent the past two years working in the medical profession, but not in public health.
The ordeal took a professional as well as personal toll on Walsh. But instead of “focusing on myself and my woes and all I had lost,” Walsh said he looked to the faith of those who came before him. He said while in Pharaoh’s prison, Joseph, betrayed by his brothers and falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife, “was looking out for the best interest of the prisoners.”
“I don’t see myself as a victim but as someone God wanted to redirect,” Walsh told me. “I hope that’s what people get from this.”
Bonnie reports on First Amendment freedoms for WORLD Digital.