Judge halts suit against nurse who discussed religious views during home visit

Tuesday, August 17, 1999

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit charging a Connecticut state nurse with violating the religious-liberty rights of a gay couple when she told them they were living in violation of Christian morals.

In October 1996, Jo Ann Knight, a Connecticut Department of Public Health nurse, visited Kenneth Johnson and Byron Benton, a couple who had been together for 20 years, at their New Haven home to evaluate the care Johnson was receiving for AIDS.

During her visit, Knight asked the couple about their religious beliefs and revealed her own religious underpinnings. For well over an hour, Knight elaborated on her Christian faith, in the process telling the two that their commitment to one another offended God's will and that they could not achieve “salvation” unless they were “born again.”

After Knight's visit, the two men filed a federal lawsuit against her, arguing that as a state representative she unconstitutionally had endorsed a specific religious belief during her home visit and hampered their religious practices. Connecticut Department of Public Health officials, meanwhile, reprimanded Knight and suspended her for several weeks “for the good of the service and specifically, for misconduct in your dealings with a homosexual couple.” The state also barred Knight from going on any more home visits.

Represented by the American Center for Law and Justice, a national law firm dedicated to defending conservative values, Knight sought a dismissal of the couple's lawsuit against her and filed a separate legal claim against the state health department, alleging that its actions violated her fundamental rights. Knight's lawsuit against the state is still pending.

Last week a federal judge sided with Knight and dismissed the gay couple's suit. U.S. District Judge Dominic J. Squatrito concluded, in part, that Knight's actions did not amount to a state intrusion on the couple's free exercise of religion.

“In the present case, the plaintiffs (Johnson and Benton) do not claim that the defendant explicitly threatened the plaintiffs with retaliation or attempted to condition the receipt of a benefit upon the conduct proscribed by the plaintiffs' religious beliefs,” Squatrito wrote. “The plaintiffs argue, however, that they feared a reduction in state benefits if they asked the defendant to refrain from her speech. It is undisputed that the plaintiffs' benefits were not in any way affected or changed as a result of this visit. Moreover, the only statement made by the defendant that could be perceived as a threat was the comment that the plaintiffs could not achieve salvation unless they mended their ways. The court concludes that the plaintiffs' subjective and unsubstantiated fears do not rise to the level of a First Amendment violation.”

The couple also argued that Knight's statements were attributable to the state and therefore an endorsement of Christianity in violation of the separation of church and state. Squatrito also dismissed that argument.

“In the present case, the court concludes that the defendant's actions do not permit the conclusion that the state endorses particular religious beliefs,” Squatrito wrote. “Both plaintiffs expressed the understanding that the defendant was espousing 'her opinions' or 'her own religious beliefs.' In this context, the defendant's actions did not have the effect of a state endorsement of a particular religious belief.”

Vincent P. McCarthy, northeast regional counsel for the ACLJ and the attorney who is representing Knight, said Squatrito's ruling vindicated Knight's right to freely express her religious beliefs.

“The court made it clear that a person cannot be sued for expressing their religious beliefs,” McCarthy said in a prepared statement. Knight “cared deeply about the men and wanted to share with them her Christian faith, which is a source of hope and comfort to many patients — especially those who face serious or terminal illnesses. We never believed there was a basis in fact for the lawsuit against our client, and we are pleased the court agreed.”

Robert Solomon, the attorney for Johnson and Benton, did not return calls to the First Amendment Center regarding Squatrito's decision.