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Pastor in discrimination case to collect $225,000

ATLANTA (BP) — A Georgia pastor fired from his government job over sermons alleged to be discriminatory will instead receive a $225,000 settlement from the state based on his own discrimination lawsuit.

In 2014 the State of Georgia’s Department of Public Health hired Eric Walsh, a lay minister, to serve as a district health director. Walsh accepted the offer but not long thereafter state officials requested samples of Walsh’s sermons and searched online for others. Days later Walsh received a voice message from the officials requesting to speak with him about the position. Unintentionally, Walsh later noted, he learned of his firing when the callers mistakenly thought the call had ended and could be heard laughing and using phrases such as “you’re out” on the voicemail.

First Liberty Institute filed a lawsuit April 20, 2016, on Walsh’s behalf, contending the state fired him because of the content of sermons he delivered as an ordained lay minister. See related story.

Thursday (Feb. 9), First Liberty Institute announced the settlement on behalf of their client.

“I am grateful this trial has finally ended,” Walsh said. “It’s been a long, difficult journey, but it’s worth it to have my name cleared and to ensure that all Georgia government employees know they have religious liberty.”

Overreach of government

Last October Walsh’s attorney, Jeremy Dys, held a press conference at the Georgia state capitol extolling Walsh’s capabilities as a doctor and announcing no sermons would be handed over to state officials despite legal papers requiring him to do so.

“No one in this country should be fired from their job for something that was said in a church from a pulpit during a sermon,” Dys, senior counsel for First Liberty Institute, said at the press conference last fall. “If the government is allowed to fire someone over what he said in his sermons, they can come after any of us for our beliefs on anything. The state has no business snooping around in a pastor’s study looking for sermons.”

Prior to losing his position, Walsh had been considered an ideal candidate for working with the Department of Health. During a lengthy interview process in early 2014, DPH officials said in emails the lay pastor was their “favorite” candidate for the position and called him “bright, engaging, and [having] a great personality.” Toward the end of the email the writer expressed “we will not be seeing a more qualified candidate.”

Seen before in the case of Kelvin Cochran

Walsh’s case echoed that of former Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran.

Both had served honorably elsewhere — Walsh with the City of Pasadena and Cochran as the first African American fire chief of Shreveport, La. — before coming to Georgia. Each also received high commendations from the Obama administration — Walsh being appointed to the then-president’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS and Cochran named U.S. Fire Administrator in July 2009. On Jan. 6, 2015, Cochran was terminated by the city due to a section in a self-published book addressing homosexuality.

Regarding the settlement in the Walsh case, Dys commented in a press release by First Liberty that “this is a clear and resounding victory for religious freedom. We always knew the law was on our side, so we are pleased the State of Georgia agreed to settle this case and clear Dr. Walsh’s good name.”

Walsh currently serves as a lay minister in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

“We are grateful that the State of Georgia agreed to settle the case and acknowledge the right of their employees to express their religious beliefs,” Dys noted. “No one should be fired for simply expressing his religious beliefs.”