Judge tosses out suit by ex-sheriff’s employee who claims religious bias

Tuesday, June 23, 1998

A federal judge in Florida has dismissed a lawsuit filed by a county sheriff's ex-employee who said he was discriminated against because of his religious beliefs.

Wade Hampton Jr., a Jehovah's Witness, accused his employer, the Pasco County sheriff, of demoting him after he stated that he did not want to be placed in a job where he might have to use deadly force. Hampton, represented by a St. Petersburg attorney, sued the Pasco County sheriff's office, claiming a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The federal law states that employers—private or governmental–cannot discriminate against employees because of their religion and must accommodate these religious beliefs, unless the employer can demonstrate that such accommodation would cause “undue hardship” on the employer.

U.S. District Judge Harvey E. Schlesinger threw the suit out of court, saying Hampton lacked evidence to support allegations that he was demoted because of his religious beliefs.

David Sockol, a Tampa attorney representing Hampton, said that despite the financial burden on his practice he will appeal the decision to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The employer is supposed to show that it would be an undue hardship to accommodate Hampton's religious request,” Sockol said. “The judge made the determination without requiring the state to put forth any evidence of undue hardship caused by allowing Hampton to keep his job without carrying a gun.

“The only accommodation the county provided Hampton with was a clerical position that resulted in a 50 percent pay cut,” Sockol said.

Hampton had worked in the Pasco County corrections system for 16 years in positions that did not require him to use or carry a gun. When he was offered a position transporting prisoners, he was told he would have a to carry gun. Hampton refused the job, telling his supervisors the job would place him in greater likelihood of using deadly force.

“His religious beliefs require him to live life peaceably and not to use a gun to take someone's life,” Sockol said. “I think his employer's actions were insensitive to those religious beliefs.”

After refusing the new job, Hampton said he was demoted to a cashier clerk and his salary was cut in half.

“For most of his time with Pasco County corrections, Hampton worked in the jail where he was not required to carry a gun,” Sockol said. “The transportation job would have put him in a position of having to shoot a prisoner, because prisoners typically attempt escapes when being transported from jail to court or to the hospital.”

Schlesinger, however, ruled that as soon as Hampton objected to using his gun, county officials were free to demote him.

“Hampton was just trying to do the right thing,” Sockol said. “He just asked his supervisors to not put him in a spot where he would have greater chance of shooting someone. He just wanted to do his job and practice his religion.”

Kevin Doll, spokesman for the sheriff's office, told The Tampa Tribune that he expected the judge's decision because the case had no merit when filed. Doll also said the sheriff would have no comment regarding Hampton's appeal.