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Former Indy Star writers allege religious discrimination

INDIANAPOLIS (BP)–Both sides of a religious discrimination lawsuit involving two Christian editorial writers and their former employer, The Indianapolis Star, have stated their cases in documents filed in federal court.

The lawsuit, filed in June by former Star editorial board members James Patterson and Lisa Coffey, alleges that top newsroom managers demonstrated “a practice and pattern of refusing to hire and/or promote persons known to have a strong Christian religious belief and of reducing the number of persons known to have a strong Christian religious belief” and that “promotion of viewpoints favorable to homosexuality and the gay community is a priority of … top newsroom managers.”

Patterson began to work at The Star in 1989 and was fired due to his Christian faith May 5, according to the lawsuit, which added that Patterson, who is a 51-year-old African American, was the victim of racial and age discrimination as well. Coffey resigned from the newspaper in October 2003 after being transferred from the editorial department to the copy desk due to her Christian faith, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit requests that Patterson and Coffey be reinstated at the paper and be compensated for lost income, benefits, emotional distress and unspecified punitive damages.

In an answer to the lawsuit filed by The Star Aug. 8, the newspaper denied charges of discrimination, arguing that Patterson was fired because of “numerous factual and other errors in his work” and that Coffey was never mistreated in the days prior to her resignation.

Upon investigating the claim, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission declined to take any action against The Star but sent Patterson and Coffey a letter granting them permission to sue in federal court. A trial should begin within 10 to 12 months.

Among the points at issue:

— Patterson alleges that Dennis Ryerson, The Star’s executive editor and vice president, told the editorial department he was “repulsed and offended” by an editorial written by Patterson encouraging readers to pray for U.S. troops in Iraq.

Patterson also claims Ryerson stated that “in the future, he would not allow any editorials with any Christian overtones to be published or which could be construed as proselytizing on the editorial pages.”

The editorial in question, written one day after the beginning of the 2003 war with Iraq, urged readers to “pray for safety of our soldiers, comfort of their families, courage for our leaders and the wisdom for all parties to war to find the quickest path to peace.” It also urged prayers for the people of Iraq, “that their suffering be fleeting and that the freedom they deserve soon come to their troubled land.”

The newspaper denies that Ryerson “has ever demonstrated hostility toward Christianity and Christians on The Star’s staff” and that he never told anyone he was “repulsed and offended” by the prayer editorial.

Any claim that Ryerson harbors hostility toward Christians is “demonstrably false and preposterous” given the fact that Ryerson wrote an April 6 editorial “describing his own Christian upbringing and respect and appreciation for all religious beliefs,” the newspaper said.

— Patterson and Coffey claim that Ryerson and Star publisher Barbara Henry “displayed strong disagreement with anyone who had a Biblical view of homosexuality,” adding that they “implemented a policy and practice of encouraging, favoring and printing news coverage and editorials with a positive slant on homosexuality and of disfavoring editorials with a positive slant on Christianity.”

The defendants say this claim is “demonstrably and patently false” in light of that fact that The Star editorialized against legalizing gay “marriage” during Ryerson’s tenure as editor and Henry’s tenure as publisher.

— In July 2003 Coffey wrote a series of columns dealing with the public health and economic consequences of sodomy, coinciding with the U.S. Supreme Court’s review of the Texas sodomy case Lawrence v. Texas. In the first column of the series, Coffey recounted that “men who have sex with men” are a high-risk group for HIV transmission, according to the lawsuit.

Upon reading the column, Ryerson “became enraged and refused to print it, stating that The Star would never run anything that was so anti-gay. The … column was not anti-gay, despite Mr. Ryerson’s interpretation of it,” the lawsuit stated.

After Ryerson censored the column on July 24, 2003, he engaged in an e-mail exchange with Coffey in which she told Ryerson that “she respected him and hoped they could work together despite their philosophical differences,” the lawsuit said. Coffey added a brief outline of her beliefs in Christianity and the Bible. Ryerson responded with a “vitriolic e-mail in response” demonstrating “a deep animosity toward Christianity in general and toward Plaintiff Coffey in particular,” Coffey said.

The newspaper denied that Ryerson condemned Coffey’s beliefs or demonstrated any animosity toward Christianity. Coffey’s e-mail was “lengthy and inappropriate” and attempted to “impose her beliefs on Ryerson,” according to the defense. Ryerson responded respectfully, offering to discuss the matter further and reminding Coffey of a company policy against “sermonizing in the workplace,” The Star said.

— Patterson claims he was denied recognition for winning a first-place award in the Indiana Associated Press Managing Editors Association for his editorial writing. After failing to give him his trophy, The Star’s parent company, Gannett Co., Inc., broke with its normal procedure by not acknowledging Patterson’s award on the company website, the lawsuit said. The Star also refused to publish any story reporting on Patterson’s achievements, according to the lawsuit.

The Star argues that the award-winning editorial “had been heavily edited prior to publication, and did not reflect Patterson’s actual work.” The newspaper also claims it did report on Patterson’s award in a May 18, 2003, article.

Patterson has won numerous awards during his career at The Star, including the Inland Press Association Best of Show Award and the Inland Press Association Editorial Excellence Award in 2004; the Indiana Associated Press Managing Editor’s Award for first place editorial writing in 2003; and the Indiana Chapter Society of Professional Journalists first place award for editorial writing in 2002. Coffey also has won numerous awards.
James Patterson has been a speaker at Baptist Press’ Student Journalism Conference and, since leaving the Indianapolis Star, he has done freelance writing for Baptist Press.