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Religious views of social worker upheld in federal court ruling

ST. LOUIS (BP)–A federal appeals court has upheld a lower court ruling that the state of Missouri was wrong when it sought to fire a social worker whose deeply held religious beliefs prompted him to object to the state licensing homosexual foster parents.

“This is an important decision that underscores the fact that the government cannot discriminate against employees because of their religious beliefs,” said Francis J. Manion, senior counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, who represented the social worker, Larry Phillips.

“First, a jury ruled in favor of our client — then a federal judge upheld that decision. Now, a federal appeals court agrees with our position. The message is clear: The government simply cannot take action against employees because of their religious beliefs. It is our hope that the case ends here. If a decision is made to appeal, we will continue to vigorously defend our client’s constitutional rights.”

The case began in 1997 when the ACLJ filed a federal lawsuit in Kansas City against the Missouri Department of Social Services on behalf of Phillips, who was employed as a social worker. The suit charged that the state discriminated against Phillips because he told supervisors that his religious beliefs prevented him from endorsing the granting of a foster parent license to an admitted lesbian. The suit contended that Phillips suffered disciplinary action because of his religious beliefs — including a move by supervisors to lower his performance evaluations and a recommendation that he be fired.

In October 1999, a federal jury ruled on behalf of Phillips and assessed actual and punitive damages against the state totaling $26,000. A federal judge affirmed the jury verdict in April 2000 and Phillips was awarded attorneys’ fees totaling nearly $60,000.

The state appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis. A three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit, in a July 19 ruling, upheld the lower court decision and ruled that Phillips’ supervisor had no intention of accommodating his religious beliefs and should have known better than to take disciplinary action against Phillips because of those beliefs.

In a 13-page opinion, the panel stated that “an objectively reasonable official would understand that it is unlawful to recommend the termination of a subordinate … based on that employee’s request for accommodation of his religious beliefs.”

Manion said the appeals court “understands that the state of Missouri went too far in utilizing its heavy-handed tactics to intimidate Larry Phillips. The actions of the state amounted to nothing more than state-sponsored religious discrimination — actions that are not only unlawful, but actions that simply should not be permitted to occur in the work environment.”

As recapped in The Washington Times, Phillips was dismissed from his job in 1996 in overseeing 80 foster homes after he protested, on religious grounds, Missouri’s efforts to recruit homosexuals and lesbians as foster parents.

Phillips became particularly concerned when the Department of Social Services placed a young girl struggling with her sexual identify in that lesbian’s home, The Times recounted.

Phillips was later terminated after being transferred to another department in the state agency, but according to the appeals court, that termination was for reasons not related to the appeals case. Phillips could not be reached for comment on the ruling.

A spokesman for the Missouri attorney general’s office told The Times that the state has not decided whether to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Kapp is an ACLJ media relations writer. Art Toalston contributed to this article.

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  • Gene Kapp