Appeals panel: Reprimanded prison workers can pursue speech claims in court

Thursday, June 7, 2001

A federal appeals panel has ruled that three Minnesota state prison employees, reprimanded for reading Bibles during a training session on homosexuals in the workplace, can argue at trial that state officials violated their free-speech rights.

But the three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the workers’ claims that the Minnesota Department of Corrections violated their religious-liberty rights.

The panel’s May 29 ruling overturns a lower court decision that upheld the plaintiffs’ religious-freedom claims but dismissed their free-speech arguments.

In November 1997 the state Department of Corrections punished Thomas Altman, Ken Yackly and Kristen Larson for silently reading their Bibles during the state-mandated “Gays and Lesbians in the Workplace” training session.

The American Center for Law and Justice, a nonprofit religious-oriented law firm, in April 1998 filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the three employees claiming the Department of Corrections violated their free-speech and religious-liberty rights. U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery ruled in August 1999 that the workers’ free-speech rights had not been violated but their religious-freedom rights had been.

The 8th Circuit panel, however, reversed Montgomery’s decision, ruling instead that the workers’ religious-liberty rights were not violated when prison officials ordered them to attend the training session.

“The only burden placed on (the employees) was a requirement they attend a 75-minute training program at which they were exposed to widely-accepted views that they oppose on faith-based principles,” the judges wrote. “This is not, in our view, a substantial burden on their free exercise of religion.”

The employees had testified that they read their Bibles to protest what they considered “state-sponsored propaganda” promoting homosexuality.

The state, however, argued that the workers were insubordinate and violated a department policy that says, “Employees shall not exhibit behavior that demonstrates prejudice or which has the effect of holding any person, group or organization up to ridicule or contempt.”

But the ACLJ said correction officials did not instruct the three employees to put away their Bibles.

“Throughout the training session, the employees neither did nor said anything which was intended to disrupt, disturb or otherwise interfere with the trainers’ presentations,” the group said in a news release.

Corrections officials gave the employees written letters of reprimand for insubordination. The ACLJ claims those letters, placed in the workers’ personnel files, prevented promotions for the employees.

Montgomery’s 1999 ruling required corrections officials to remove the reprimands from the employees’ personnel files, but refused to allow the employees to pursue damages in a trial for lost wages, attorneys’ fees and job promotions.

“Now we have the opportunity to try those claims,” Francis J. Manion, a senior ACLJ attorney, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Manion says the appeals panel decision lends credence to the prison workers’ claims.

“I think this is as clear a free-speech claim as I’ve ever seen,” said Manion in the Tribune article. “When you read your Bible in a form of protest, it’s no different than wearing a black armband to protest war or a colorful ribbon as a symbol of some other social issue,” he said.

Under the appeals panel’s decision, the case now returns to the district court for further proceedings.

“This decision confirms that government employers cannot single out religious speech or religious symbols for punishment,” said Manion in a news release. “These employees did no more than bring Bibles to a training session with which they disagreed, and they were punished for it. We’re very pleased that we now have the opportunity to prove our case in court.”

Tags: , , , ,