ST. PAUL, Minn. (BP)–A federal jury has found that Minnesota officials violated the constitutional rights of state employees when it punished them for reading their Bibles during a state-mandated diversity training session on homosexuality.
The Aug. 1 verdict “sends a very loud message to government officials that they cannot single out and punish employees for their religious beliefs,” said Francis J. Manion, senior counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, which represented the employees. “The jury clearly let the state of Minnesota know that punishing employees for expressing their religious views is not only wrong, but violates their basic constitutional rights as well.”
After a three-day trial in U.S. District Court in St. Paul, a nine-person jury unanimously agreed that the Minnesota Department of Corrections had violated the free speech and equal protection rights of the employees and had discriminated against them on the basis of their religion. The jury awarded the employees damages totaling more than $78,000, including an award of $60,000 for punitive damages.
The ACLJ filed suit in April 1998 against the corrections department on behalf of Thomas Altman and Ken Yackly to force the agency to rescind the reprimands Altman and Yackly received in 1997 when they attended the state-mandated training session called “Gays and Lesbians in the Workplace.” The employees contended the training session was little more than a state-sponsored indoctrination aimed at changing their religious beliefs about homosexuality.
The employees attended the training session and did not interfere with the presentation. From time to time, however, they read silently from their Bibles. They were never told to put away their Bibles and were subsequently reprimanded “for inappropriate and unprofessional conduct….”
In 1999, a federal district judge found that the actions of the state violated the free exercise of religion — but threw out the rest of the ACLJ suit which focused on free speech and equal protection claims. The ACLJ appealed that part of the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. In a May 2001 decision, the appeals court reversed the lower court decision, ordered that the case go to trial and rejected claims by the state that the employees were guilty of insubordination.
“Our clients never had an issue with the desire of the employer to ensure that co-workers treat each other with respect and dignity,” said Manion, who argued the case before the jury. “But when the state of Minnesota tried to force these employees to change their beliefs about homosexuality, the government crossed the line and violated their constitutional rights. These employees did nothing more than bring their Bibles to a training session with which they disagreed, and they were punished for it.”
Manion said he pleased that the jury decision “upheld the constitutional rights of our clients.”
The American Center for Law and Justice, based in Virginia Beach, Va., specializes in constitutional law and is on the Internet at www.aclj.org.