State employees accuse Minnesota of violating First Amendment rights

Monday, April 6, 1998

Three employees of the Minnesota Department of Corrections claim the state violated their speech and religion rights by reprimanding them for voicing objections to a state-mandated training program intended to protect gays in the workplace.

Backed by a national Christian legal rights firm, three workers at a Minnesota correctional facility filed a federal lawsuit in St. Paul late last week claiming they were subjected to discrimination, harassment and disciplinary action for expressing their views about a training session entitled “Gays and Lesbians in the Workplace.”

The workers’ allege in their suit that the state subverted their First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.

Last summer, the three employees, who are Christian and say gays are immoral, asked corrections officials to excuse them from the sessions. The employees’ suit states that they believe the state-operated training sessions amount to “the promotion or teaching of homosexual behavior as equivalent to monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”

Corrections officials, however, told the employees their attendance was mandatory and that gays are protected under the state’s Human Rights Act.

During the training sessions in October — which were designed to help state employees avoid bigoted actions toward gays — the three employees remained silent and read Bibles.

Following the sessions, the employees say they received written reprimands from state officials for unprofessional conduct. The state’s Office of Diversity also told the employees that complaints regarding their behavior at the sessions had been filed against them. In late November, the employees say they also received a letter from the Office of Special Investigators calling their actions at the sessions insubordinate and disruptive to the training process.

In December, two of the employees received letters from the state’s Human Resources Department notifying them that because of the reprimands they would not be eligible for promotions.

The employees’ suit argues that “expressions of their religious views on the matter of homosexuality and other sexual orientations are protected by their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion,” and that the state’s actions undermine that right.

Francis Manion, counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, which is representing the employees, derides the state’s actions.

“By taking the disciplinary action against our clients, the Department has overstepped its authority by discriminating against those who hold deeply religious beliefs, and strives to punish those who attempt to exercise their First Amendment rights when it comes to speaking out about homosexuality,” Manion said. “This isn’t about diversity — this is about promoting the homosexual lifestyle and punishing those who dare to question it.”

In a written statement, officials for the Department of Corrections said “it is important to acknowledge that the department supports a workplace that is free from harassment or discrimination. To that end, we provide diversity seminars which are inclusive of the groups that make up our workforce and which are protected classes under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.”

In January, the ACLJ filed a lawsuit against Minnesota’s Department of Health after a state employee was disciplined for objecting to the department’s promotion of “Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Month.”

Also, last month the American Family Association, a Mississippi-based Christian group, filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a California state worker who claimed a government-run program about sexual assault victims violated his speech and religion rights. The worker filed suit after being told he could not serve as sexual assault counselor because of his comments during the sexual assault victims training session regarding “sinful behavior” by lesbians.