Connecticut worker claims state agency violated her First Amendment rights

Thursday, January 14, 1999

A Connecticut state worker has sued a state agency arguing it violated her free-speech and religious-liberty rights when it reprimanded her for passing out religious tracts to a client.

Nicolle Quental, an interpreter for a Connecticut state agency providing programs for deaf people, received a letter of reprimand last March for using “poor judgment” while “on an interpreting assignment.” The reprimand stated that “specifically you distributed religious materials to the client for whom you were to be acting as an interpreter.”

Moreover, Quental was warned that “any further recurrences of this type of behavior may result in further disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.” Quental is still employed with the agency and interprets for deaf and hearing-impaired clients though sign language and oral interpretation.

Represented by the American Center for Law and Justice, a nonprofit group advocating greater respect for religion in the public arena, Quental filed a federal lawsuit yesterday against the Connecticut Commission on the Deaf and Hearing Impaired.

Quental argued in her suit that her supervisors knew she was a “born-again Christian,” and that they “had never instructed” her “to refrain from sharing religious tracts with either co-workers or clients.”

The three tracts Quental handed out were titled “Should I Go to Church?” “The Key,” and “What Does it Mean to Believe?”

“Please understand that while you are free to hold your religious beliefs and live by your religious convictions, during the time you are being paid by the State of Connecticut to provide interpreting services, you should not promote your religious beliefs,” the commission stated in its March 5, 1998, letter to Quental. “The Commission recognizes the depth and importance of your religious beliefs, and is always willing to work with you on any scheduling issues that may need to be addressed to accommodate your religious activities.”

The ACLJ and Quental claim in their suit that the reprimand and order to cease distributing religious tracts subverts Quental's free-speech and religious-liberty rights. “Defendants' actions have violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, as Defendants have discriminated against Quental based solely upon her religion and religious views.”

Quental asked the U.S. District Court for Connecticut to declare the agency's actions unconstitutional, to issue a permanent injunction barring the commission from ordering her to stop disseminating religious literature, and to have the reprimand erased from her personnel record.

Vince McCarthy, a senior ACLJ attorney, derided the Connecticut commission for reprimanding Quental.

“This is a case of a powerful state agency using a heavy hand to punish an employee because of her deeply held religious beliefs,” McCarthy said. “The agency's reprimand and threat of further disciplinary action is wrong and is designed to stifle our client's constitutionally protected rights of free speech and free exercise of religion.”

Although Connecticut has a religious-protection law, which bars government from substantially burdening a resident's religious liberty unless it has a compelling reason for doing so, McCarthy said he would not raise the law because of the way state judges have interpreted the “compelling-interest” test.

According to McCarthy, state judges have found too many government interests meet the stringent legal test.

Kristin Drenckhahn, an employee with the Connecticut Commission on the Deaf and Hearing Impaired, said that the state attorney general had been notified about the suit. She added that the commission had a policy barring it from commenting on pending lawsuits.