RALEIGH, N.C. (BP)–The leader of a ministry to homosexuals hopes to switch battlegrounds after a federal court dismissed his religious discrimination lawsuit against a major newspaper.
Tim Wilkins plans to ask a state court in Raleigh, N.C., to hear his challenge to his 1997 firing by the Raleigh News & Observer — and to determine whether homosexual co-workers played a part.
Filed in August of last year, Wilkins’ state lawsuit has been held up pending outcome of the federal case filed in his behalf by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Since the dismissal can still be appealed, the EEOC suit is not fully resolved.
Wilkins, a former homosexual, is now a Baptist minister and director of Cross Ministry, an organization counseling persons struggling with homosexuality.
His ministry activity — based on a belief that homosexuality is a sin and can be changed — was at the heart of his firing, Wilkins has contended. The newspaper, meanwhile, has maintained that he was dismissed for insubordination.
The EEOC filed its lawsuit in August 1999. After several delays, it was slated to go to trial Sept. 4 of this year.
But on Aug. 10, U.S. District Judge James Fox dismissed the case. The judge said he found no evidence of attacks or discrimination based on Wilkins’ religious beliefs.
“In the end, Wilkins (and the EEOC) simply disagree with the newspaper’s conclusion that his overall insubordination required that he be discharged,” the ruling said. “This evidence, even when construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, belies discrimination, religious or otherwise.
“Although the EEOC goes to great lengths to portray Wilkins’ firing as a bad decision … the only relevant issue is the existence or absence of discrimination … . Nothing in the record before the court suggests that Wilkins’ religious beliefs had a ‘determinative influence on the outcome’ of his employment.”
John Wester, an attorney with the Charlotte law firm that represented the News & Observer, said he was gratified by the judge’s ruling. “It’s thoughtful, analytical and faithful to the evidence,” Wester, a Southern Baptist layman, said. “We were hopeful for that result. It’s good to have the case concluded without a trial.”
The EEOC’s attorney in Charlotte, Mindy Weinstein, said the case has been referred to its appellate division in Washington, D.C., to determine whether to appeal the ruling.
But Wilkins doesn’t expect further action by the agency, noting that the EEOC refused to question certain News & Observer employees about their sexual preference during pre-trial proceedings.
Such questions would have addressed the motive for his dismissal, Wilkins said. He was fired about three weeks after a story about his ministry appeared in the newspaper on Aug. 4, 1997.
The firing occurred just two months after an annual job review that led to a “commendable-plus” rating and a merit pay increase.
Wilkins said he told EEOC attorneys early in their investigation that some employees who contributed to his hostile work environment and were involved in his termination might be homosexual.
But as the EEOC gathered statements, Wilkins said, an agency lawyer told him it would not ask questions about sexual preference. According to Wilkins, the attorney said, “A heterosexual could as easily discriminate against you as a homosexual.”
A day later, another EEOC attorney told him a superior instructed them that they could not ask questions about a person’s sexual preference. The attorney refused to identify that person, Wilkins said.
“I am incensed EEOC refused to ask certain questions,” said Wilkins, a member of a Southern Baptist church in Wake Forest, N.C., who is married and the father of a young daughter. “It is astonishing to me that certain questions during a deposition are ruled inappropriate and not asked for what I believe is political correctness. In one sense, that may be a larger issue than the News & Observer.”
His attorney, Nate Pendley, agreed with his client’s contention.
An adviser to Wilkins during federal court proceedings, Pendley said it was critical to question Wilkins’ co-workers to determine if they harbored animosity towards him.
“What he said was deemed to be offensive to the homosexual community,” Pendley said. “They say, ‘I can’t help it, I can’t change; it’s genetic.’ His ministry is an attack on that defense. When you say that [people can change], you bring out the worst in the militant homosexual community.
“I don’t know how EEOC resolved in its mind that it wasn’t a relevant issue,” Pendley added. “I don’t think they had the courage to run afoul of the militant homosexuals who would have been offended by that. It affected his case by removing a crucial piece of evidence.”
Weinstein declined to comment on these allegations.
If the case proceeds in state court, Pendley said he plans to pose the kinds of questions the EEOC refused to ask during federal pre-trial hearings.
However, Wester indicated he may challenge the state lawsuit because of its similarity to the federal case.
“I’ve been puzzled by this action ever since it was filed,” Wester said. “We want to learn more about the basis for the complaint. It seems to be redundant with the federal action.”
Regardless of further court action, Wilkins plans to question the federal agency’s conduct. He has enlisted the help of U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who recently contacted the EEOC and asked it to address Wilkins’ concerns.
Thus far, Wilkins said he has been unable to find anything that prohibits the agency from making the kind of inquiries he thinks should have been made.
“I believe I need to pursue it far enough to learn what EEOC’s policy is,” he said. “I feel I need to carry it far enough to get a clear-cut, concise answer.”