An federal appeals court in Georgia recently affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the case of Marcia Walden, a counselor employed by contract with the Centers for Disease Control, saying she did not have a valid free exercise claim against the CDC.
Back in 2007, Ms. Walden’s employer, C0mputer Sciences Corporation, (CSC) held a contract with the CDC under which it provided counseling services to CDC employees. The issue arose when a CDC employee who was in a long-term same-sex relationship came to Ms. Walden for counseling. During the intake session, the employee (referred to as “Jane Doe” in the opinion) told Ms. Walden about serious and emotionally disturbing issues in her relationship. In response, Ms. Walden told her that her “personal values” prevented her from effectively counseling Ms. Doe, and provided a referral. During that intake session, Ms. Walden never mentioned the source of those personal values, her Christian faith.
Ms. Doe then filed a complaint to Ms. Walden’s superiors, saying that she felt “judged and condemned” by what Ms. Walden had said. Her immediate supervisor did not take issue with the referral itself. (And neither do I — I’d rather not have LGBT people in a patient/counselor relationship with someone like that).
The program supervisor, Doug Shelton, discussed the incident with Ms. Walden and told her that the implicit judgment in telling a patient that her “personal values” prevented her from counseling the patient was not acceptable.
Ms. Walden rejected suggestions that she give potential clients who are in same-sex relationships some other reason for her referral. At the trial court level, she insisted that
it seemed unfair that [Ms. Doe] was able to talk aboutbeing gay and lesbian, and yet I couldn’t freely talk about me and my religious beliefs, or being Christian . . . . To me, it’s about honesty. If she can be honest – I mean, I should be honest about why I’m transferring her.
The court held that
undisputed facts inthe record show that Dr. Chosewood and Ms. Zerbe asked for Ms. Walden’s removal from the contract because of how she handled Ms. Doe’s referral and because they believed Ms. Walden would not alter her behavior in similar circumstances in the future, not because of her religious views or her need to refer clients for religious reasons.
Her superiors did not burden her religious exercise by instructing her not to tell patients that she disapproved of their sexuality. Ms. Walden never claimed that her religious beliefs required her to be honest with her patients about her values. (Which is ironic, since “don’t lie” is actually in there). Her sincere religious belief that she would be condoning same-sex relationships by counseling people who were involved in them was not burdened.
It appears that absolutely no one told her she had to counsel people in same-sex relationships, nor does it appear that she was penalized in any way for deciding to refer those patients to another counselor. I would give my opinion here about why it’s so reprehensible for a counselor to express judgment like that when someone comes to her in need, but Dr. Casey Chosewood, CDC’s Project Officer for Occupational Health and Preventive Services, says it beautifully:
There again, I feel like that statement has some — has some bias in it, it has some judgmental tone in it. There are many people who believe that homosexuality is like eye color or color of skin, you know. There’s good science that supports that, as well. I would not be happy with her saying something like, you know, “My personal belief doesn’t allow me to see someone of your color.” To me, that’s — it’s just not appropriate in that very vulnerable setting when patients are coming to you maybe at their neediest time. So I feel like a referral, perfectly fine. And — but to share, to give any, really, sort of expression of judgment or of displeasure with someone else’s situation or choices or life, to me, is not — it does not further the therapeutic relationship in any way.
Because the court concluded that Ms. Walden was laid off (and given instructions how to get another job within the agency) for reasons separate from her free exercise rights, it dismissed her claim. Her attorneys are considering appealing the U.S. Supreme Court, saying “[a] counselor who is a Christian shouldn’t lose her job for upholding the highest professional standards.”
In spite of the fact that the court viewed all the facts in the light most favorable to Ms. Walden, it still dismissed her free exercise claims. She also made a claim against CSC.
Under the contract it held with the CDC to provide counseling services to the CDC employees, CSC was required to discharge an employee at the request of the CDC. It did as it was contractually obligated to do when it laid her off. In doing so, the court held that it did not substantially burden Ms. Walden’s sincerely held religious beliefs.
The court further held that CSC didn’t violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it provided her with a reasonable accommodation when it offered to allow her to give a different reason for referral. And then again when it encouraged her to find alternate employment with the company. If she had done this within one year, she would even have kept her seniority.
Interestingly, the court relied on a very similar case, Bruff v. North Mississippi Health Services.
There, the court held that
the defendant hospital fulfilled its obligation to accommodate the plaintiff counselor’s religiously-based refusal toprovide same-sex relationship counseling when it gave her thirty days to find another position at the hospital and provided her with the assistance of its in-house employment counselor.
The rulings seem pretty reasonable to me. If the clients aren’t harmed by being referred out to another counselor, then everyone can be happy. Counselors don’t have to violate their religious beliefs that they can’t counsel LGBT people, and LGBT get a counselor that really has their best interests in mind. It’s entirely appropriate for a federal employer to terminate a counselor that it believes will use her position to pass judgment on people whose sexuality she disapproves of. I’m glad to see the courts standing up for that principle, especially when it’s founded in so much legal precedent.