Georgia demands pastor’s sermons in discrimination fight

The state of Georgia has demanded sermon notes and transcripts from a part-time pastor and public health expert who sued for discrimination after losing his job with the state Department of Public Health (DPH). Eric Walsh contends the state revoked his job offer because of his religious beliefs, and he’s refused to turn over religiously related materials.

“I really don’t want that precedent set in this country,” Walsh told reporters during an Oct. 26 press conference at the Georgia Capitol. “I do this for the purpose of, hopefully, protecting someone who comes after me.”

According to the Sept. 27 subpoena, Attorney General Samuel Olens called for Walsh’s sermons and “all documents relating to your service as a pastor.” Walsh believes those sermons cost him his appointment as district health director of Northwest Georgia in May 2014. His attorney said the sermon subpoena was the second of two illegal inquiries by the state of Georgia into an employee’s private speech and public faith.

“We have never seen an instance as egregious as this—of the state government intruding upon the sanctity of the pulpit. That is a gross violation of the First Amendment,” Jeremy Dys, senior counsel for First Liberty Institute, told reporters.

Dys said state officials acted illegally on two counts: First, when they requested Walsh’s sermons after hiring him and second, when state lawyers subpoenaed his sermons after he sued them.

“Employers shouldn’t be inspecting their employee’s religious beliefs—including a pastor’s sermons—for employment purposes,” Dys told me.

In announcing his hiring two years ago, DPH officials lauded Walsh’s experience as a public health physician whose work emphasized meeting the medical needs of patients diagnosed with HIV and AIDS. But two days after Walsh accepted the job offer, DPH officials requested his sermons. After reviewing them, a DPH official rescinded the job offer in a voice mail message, offering no explanation.

Walsh, a medical doctor and associate pastor for a Seventh Day Adventist congregation, filed a complaint with the state’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In February, the commission gave him the green light to file a complaint against DPH.

In preparing its defense, the state cast a broad discovery net and subpoenaed Walsh for any document, including “without limitation, any writing, communication, or other matter, printed, recorded, taped, or electronically transmitted or stored, of whatever nature or whatever form, including all non-identical copies and drafts thereof and all copies bearing notations or marks not found on the original.”

Item number 18 in the list stated, “Please produce a copy of your sermon notes and/or transcripts.”

The former mayor of Houston, Annise Parker, tried and failed to use the same tactic in her defense of a pro-LGBT city ordinance. City attorneys subpoenaed the sermons of five pastors outspoken in opposition to the ordinance. Parker defended the request until national outcry and the advice of gay-affirming pastors prompted her to withdraw the subpoena.

“Any threat against any pulpit by the state is a threat to every pulpit in every place at all times,” Dave Welch, one of the Houston pastors who fought Parker and is supporting Walsh, said at today’s press conference. “We will not allow our pulpits to be silenced or censored by the tyranny of state political correctness.”

In March, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed the Pastor Protection Act, a bill that would have protected pastors like Walsh from government intrusion into religious affairs, Dys told me. Deal called the bill “state-sanctioned discrimination” and said Georgia had no need for the protections it outlined.

“If the governor is looking for a religious liberty problem, looking for an issue that needs redressing through legislation, here it is,” said Travis Weber, director of the Family Research Council Center for Religious Liberty.

During the press conference, a reporter asked Walsh if his sermons represented his personal views, his passion.

“Well, first and foremost it’s theological,” Walsh replied. “When you go to prepare a sermon, the first thing you ask for is the presence of the Holy Spirit. That transcends things. It changes the dimensions of what is being expressed.”

When the government tries to intervene, Walsh said, “You are trying to disrupt my very connection to my God.”

— by Bonnie Pritchett

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