Federal judge: State officials unlawfully punished employees for reading Bibles

Friday, August 13, 1999

Minnesota state officials violated the religious liberties of three workers when the employees were reprimanded for reading their Bibles during a harassment-awareness training session, a federal judge has ruled.

Last year three Minnesota Department of Corrections employees, represented by the American Center for Law and Justice, a national religious conservative law firm, sued the state after the employees received reprimands for reading Bibles during a state-mandated training program called “Gays and Lesbians in the Workplace.” The three employees — a painter and two corrections officers — testified before the federal court that their Bible-reading was meant to protest the training program, which they said was a state promotion and endorsement of gay culture. One of the employees told the judge that the state was attempting to force them to accept a sinful, unnatural and “perverse lifestyle.”

The ACLJ charged that the employees were harassed by state officials and later denied promotions after their actions at the training sessions. The lawsuit claimed that the state's actions violated the employees' free-speech rights and religious-liberty rights under the federal and state constitutions.

The Department of Corrections argued, however, that the employees were not reprimanded for their religious beliefs. Instead the state argued that the employees were insubordinate during the training session and violated a department policy that states: “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.”

U.S. District Judge Ann D. Montgomery ruled on Aug. 9 that the employees' free-speech rights had not been violated, but that their religious-liberty rights had been. Montgomery said that the employees' religious-liberty rights did not hamper the Department of Corrections ability to function.

Montgomery noted that in the past, employees had read newspapers, magazines or fallen asleep during training sessions and that “none of these past incidents was deemed sufficiently disruptive for a supervisor to take disciplinary action.”

“Defendants do not cite any specific disturbance caused by Plaintiffs, nor do they articulate any fear of future disturbances which may be caused by Plaintiffs,” Montgomery wrote. “While the DOC has a strong interest in preventing harassment based upon sexual orientation, the DOC does not allege that Plaintiffs have been involved in any harassment. The DOC also does not allege that the Plaintiffs' Bible reading either directly or indirectly contributed to or fostered incidents of harassment.”

Since the state could not prove the employees' actions hindered Department of Corrections operations, Montgomery said that the workers' free exercise of religion rights protected by the First Amendment and the Minnesota Constitution had been subverted. Minnesota's Freedom of Conscience Clause “precludes an infringement on or an interference with religious freedom and limits the permissible countervailing interests of the government,” Montgomery wrote.

Montgomery ordered the Department of Corrections to remove the employees' written reprimands from their personnel files.

Francis J. Manion, a senior attorney for the American Center for Law and Justice, said that he was pleased with the judge's ruling, despite not winning on every count.

“There was never any reason for our clients to be forced to listen to state-sponsored indoctrination about the acceptability of the homosexual lifestyle,” Manion said. “The state of Minnesota actually punished these people for their silent, symbolic protest. The punishment was truly outrageous. We are pleased the court recognized the state's actions for what they were &3151; a blatant violation of our clients' fundamental constitutional rights.”

In a prepared statement, the Department of Corrections said it would continue to provide harassment awareness training sessions. The state agency has yet to decide whether it will appeal Montgomery's order to revoke the workers' reprimands.