(CNSNews.com) – Attorneys representing a physician who was allegedly terminated from a public health director job he was offered and accepted because of the content of his off-duty sermons filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday in Atlanta against Georgia’s Department of Public Health (DPH).
The lawsuit states that DPH offered Dr. Eric Walsh - the former director of the City of Pasadena’s Public Health Department and “one of the highest qualified candidates for a District Health Director that DPH had ever interviewed or hired” - the $150,000-a-year job on May 7, 2014.
Walsh, an ordained lay minister who preached several times a month at the Altadena Seventh Day Adventist Church in California, accepted the offer and DPH informed the media that he had been hired, according to the lawsuit.
Walsh quit his former job and was in the process of moving his family to Georgia when he received a voicemail from DPH officials informing him that he had been terminated, according to Jeremy Dys, senior counsel at the First Liberty Institute, a non-profit religious rights legal group that is representing the physician.
“He was hired on May 7th, and then they asked for and found some of his sermons online. They went through his sermons line by line, and on May 16th he was terminated,” Dys told CNSNews.com.
The lawsuit contends that “DPH’s unlawful termination of his employment [was] based in whole or in part upon his religious faith, beliefs, speech, viewpoint, expression, association and/or practices” in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of one’s religious beliefs.
It further alleges that Sidney Barrett, DPH’s general counsel, twice warned top agency officials, including Commissioner Brenda Fitzgerald, that “under federal law Dr. Walsh’s religious beliefs could play no role in any employment decision by DPH.”
However, in a phone call two days before the termination, DPH chief of staff James Howgate “told Dr. Walsh words to the effect that….you can’t preach that and work in the public health field,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued Walsh a “right to sue” letter in February.
In an email to CNSNews, DPH denied any wrongdoing.
“Georgia Department of Public Health policy requires the disclosure and written approval of secondary employment held by its employees. Dr. Walsh was extended a conditional offer of employment by DPH, subject to passing a routine background check. During the background check process, DPH learned Walsh failed to disclose outside employment to his previous public health employer, which also was in violation of California law,” a DPH spokeswoman stated.
“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.”
But Dys pointed out that an internal email from DPH Human Resources Director Lee Rudd shows that state employees were assigned to review Walsh’s sermons, available online, “on matters of public concern unrelated to his job at DPH or with any other employer.”
“The State of Georgia has blatantly violated the law,” Dys continued. “Dr. Walsh has a medical degree. He has his doctorate in public health. He has served two different presidential administrations on a presidential advisory committee on HIV and AIDS. He had served as a director of public health in Pasadena and in Orange County as a public health official. He even started one of the state’s first free dental clinics for HIV/AIDS patients in Pasadena.
“He wasn’t fired because he lacked the credentials or he did something at work. He was terminated because of something he said in a sermon,” Dys told CNSNews.
Despite his qualifications, Walsh says he has been unable to get another job in public health. "By reviewing my sermons and firing me because of my religious beliefs, the State of Georgia destroyed my career in public service.” he said.
Walsh’s termination “should send chills down the spine of every American,” Dys told CNSNews.
“That’s clearly an illegal practice, to make hiring and firing decisions based upon a person’s religion. And certainly, no one in America should be fired from their job over something that was said in their sermon or maybe even in their church. I mean, it’s just incredible.
“If you can imagine having to bring your sermon notes or the Sunday school lesson you prepared for the six-year-olds in your place of worship, if you’ve got to bring those with you to your annual review, is that fair game now?” Dys asked.
“Look. If the government can fire Dr. Walsh over the content of his sermons, they can come after any of us for our beliefs on anything.”