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Ga. fires physician for lay sermons, lawsuit says

ATLANTA (BP) — First Liberty Institute has filed a lawsuit for a bivocational lay minister and physician, alleging the state of Georgia fired him because of sermons he delivered in the pulpit before his employment as a district health director.

The Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) fired Eric Walsh a week after hiring him as a district health director for northwest Atlanta because of the content of sermons he delivered as an ordained lay minister, alleges the suit filed April 20 in U.S. District Court in Atlanta.

The termination violates Walsh’s rights to free speech, free exercise of religion and freedom of association guaranteed under the First Amendment, the suit asserts. It also stated the termination violated his right to equal protection guaranteed under the Fourth Amendment and his freedom from religious discrimination guaranteed under Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Religious liberty means we should be able to find sanctuary in our own sanctuary,” senior counsel Jeremy Dys said on First Liberty’s website. “If the government is allowed to fire someone over what he said in his sermons, then they can come after any of us for our beliefs on anything. We must ensure every American has the right to talk about their faith at church without getting fired or being barred from public service.”

A noted physician who has directed the Pasadena, Calif., public health department and served on President Obama’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, Walsh is an ordained Seventh Day Adventist lay minister.

“I am a devout member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and, as a part of my sincerely-held religious beliefs, I believe in expressing my faith,” Walsh said in a complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission preceding the lawsuit. “My faith is important to me; I regularly speak about my faith at churches and religious conferences.”

His sermons focused on topics including following God, health, marriage, sexuality, world religions, science, creationism, compassion for the poor and other topics. The Georgia Department of Public Health has said it fired Walsh for other unspecified reasons.

The DPH fired Walsh in May 2014, one day after he provided copies of his sermons to the state, said Walsh’s attorneys, who provided a copy of an email indicating the DPH asked several employees to review and critique Walsh’s sermons. Walsh has been unable to find employment in public health since then, Liberty Institute said. The law firm of Parks, Chesin & Walbert joins Liberty Institute in the civil action filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

In a similar case in Georgia, the Atlanta Fire Department terminated Kelvin Cochran in January 2015 as fire chief because of a self-published book he wrote for his church’s Bible study group. In “Who Told You That You Were Naked?” Cochran included a brief reference to the biblical teaching that sex is reserved for a man and a woman in marriage.

An Atlanta district court amended a lawsuit in December 2015 that the Alliance Defending Freedom filed on Cochran’s behalf, but allowed the primary claims of “retaliation, discrimination based on his viewpoint, and the violation of his constitutionally protected freedom of religion, association, and due process (firing without following proper procedure)” to proceed, the ADF said.

Cochran, a deacon at the 19,000-member Elizabeth Baptist Church affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention, has since entered the preaching ministry.

The Georgia Legislature passed a religious liberty bill March 16, the Free Exercise Protection Act, but Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed it less than two weeks later. The bill had combined elements of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a First Amendment Defense Act and a Pastor Protection Act.