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Religious discrimination claim by Baptist affirmed by U.S. agency

RALEIGH, N.C. (BP)–The federal government is supporting the religious discrimination claim of a former Southern Baptist pastor who said his beliefs cost him his job at a North Carolina newspaper.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has sued the Raleigh News & Observer for alleged discrimination and unfair employment practices. The lawsuit asks that Tim Wilkins be awarded back pay, reinstatement to his job and punitive damages.

Ironically, Wilkins had contacted the Rutherford Institute in August for help with his case. Three months earlier, he sued the newspaper for alleged defamation of character for a story it ran about his dismissal. However, that case is being handled separately from the discrimination claim.

Ron Rissler, legal coordinator for Rutherford, a Charlottesville, Va.-based Christian rights organization, said he was surprised to learn recently that the EEOC had filed a lawsuit on Aug. 31.

“It was quite a surprise to us because they can’t take every case,” he said. “In the past, we’ve seen cases of religious discrimination where they’ll give a right-to-sue letter, but in this case they filed a complaint.

“It seems clear this is religious discrimination,” he added. “Whether we’ll be able to file a complaint or not on his behalf may be a moot point. We can monitor the case and monitor the damages. We’ll assist him in any way we can to make sure he doesn’t drop through the cracks.”

Baptist Press first reported on Wilkins’ case in May of 1998, after he filed a claim with the EEOC. He said the newspaper discharged him because he believes that homosexuality is wrong, even though it didn’t cite that reason for his firing.

At one time a pastor, he now operates a ministry that seeks to help people leave the homosexual lifestyle. He was fired less than a month after a story appeared in the News & Observer about his work with the ministry, which is named CROSS.

Wilkins’ interest in the issue stems from his own background. Although he was baptized at age nine in an SBC-affiliated church, he said confusion over his identity and sexuality led to a series of sexual encounters with men during his teens.

He said he stopped after realizing same-sex acts were incompatible with biblical teachings. Wilkins and his wife, Lisa, were married in 1992.

In its suit, the EEOC said it based its action on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title I of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, to correct unlawful employment practices on the basis of religion.

The commission alleges that the newspaper discriminated against Wilkins by failing to promote him. It also said the defendant discharged him because of his Baptist beliefs, including his belief that gay men and women can be transformed into heterosexuals.

It asks for an injunction against the News & Observer to prevent further discrimination and that the court order it to institute a policy prohibiting religious discrimination.

In its answer to the suit filed in late November with the U.S. Eastern District Court, attorneys for the newspaper deny that it engaged in any unlawful employment practice.

The document said that in August 1997, Wilkins — who held the position of direct marketing supervisor in the News & Observer’s circulation department — expressed interest in a position as outside sales representative in the display advertising department. However, it said, the individual selected for that position previously served as a sales assistant in display advertising.

“The News & Observer also specifically denies that it discharged Wilkins because of his religious beliefs or practices,” the court papers said. “Wilkins was discharged after and as a result of his repeated failure to perform his employment duties and repeated acts of insubordination.”

No hearing date has been set in the case, which may go to trial later in 2000. John Wester, an attorney with the Charlotte, N.C. firm that is defending the News & Observer, said he doesn’t attach any significance to the EEOC filing its lawsuit.

“I’ve handled a lot of EEOC cases and have given up predicting when they will sue or not sue,” said Wester, a member of Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte. “This newspaper has had an enviable record on civil rights for many years. We will mount a vigorous defense. We have a great deal of confidence in our position.”

However, Wilkins previously contested the claim that he was inefficient or insubordinate. He noted that prior to a three-day suspension and his firing, he had never received an oral or written reprimand. Two months before that, he had received commendable job ratings, he said.

Because of the pending court action, Wilkins declined to comment directly on the lawsuit. An attorney for the EEOC didn’t return a phone call asking for comment.

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  • Ken Walker