Appeals Court: Atheist’s Lawsuit Against Qur’an-Burning Fire Station Can Proceed April 23, 2020

Appeals Court: Atheist’s Lawsuit Against Qur’an-Burning Fire Station Can Proceed

In 2016, atheist Jeffrey Queen filed an unbelievable lawsuit against the city of Bowling Green (Kentucky) based on what he witnessed while working for the fire department.

The lawsuit only came after his complaints were ignored, some by Deputy Chief Dustin Rockrohr (also named in the lawsuit), and after he was formally discharged.

Here’s a list of most of the claims Queen made in the lawsuit. Not all of them; we don’t have time for that. Just most.

  • Assistant Chief of Training Norman Simpson referred to non-Christians as “pagans.”
  • Chief Jason Colson told Queen he needed to join a church.
  • Chief Paul Campbell told Queen to “get right with Jesus.”
  • Captain Todd Barnard said atheists “deserved to burn.”
  • Chief Donnie Frye said, “I’ll be damned if I work with [atheists],” and he was “sure as hell glad none of those fuckers work here.”
  • Queen says he was “forced” to participate in Bible study during dinner at the fire station.
  • After he admitted to being an atheist, Captain Eric Smith and another firefighter said they would “burn his house down.”
  • Queen says he was called “fa**ot” almost every day. Others called him a “queer.” (Not that it makes a difference, but Queen is straight and married to a woman.)
  • Queen witnessed colleagues saying they wouldn’t touch gay people because they “probably had AIDS.”
  • Queen was told, “If a homo works here, we’ll make sure he dies in a fire. We’ll chop his feet off.”
  • Queen said some of the firefighters refused to help a man with chest pain after learning he was gay.
  • He witnessed members of the Fire Department refer to African Americans as “hoodrats,” “thugs” and “n—–.”
  • He witnessed members of the Fire Department refer to Muslims as “towelheads,” “jihadis,” “ali-babas,” and “ sand n—–.”
  • He heard those same people say of Muslims, “we need to ship them all back where they came from” and “let the bombs torch them, they are going to hell anyway.”
  • One of his colleagues burned a copy of the Qur’an in front of the Fire Department while saying “burn them all.” (A video of that can be seen here).

Queen reported these things (anonymously) but he didn’t believe HR investigated them. He eventually took a leave of absence following the harassment. He later resigned due to the hostility.

Without Queen as a whistleblower, we likely wouldn’t know about any of those things. He was right to go public with them; unfortunately, he suffered as a result of it.

Since that lawsuit was filed, the city and Rockrohr have tried to get the courts to throw it out. They don’t dispute what Queen witnessed, though. Instead, they claim “that jokes, pranks, and teasing are all part of the fraternal environment at the Fire Department that Queen enjoyed and participated in.” But of course Queen says he didn’t enjoy any of that. (It’s possible he smiled and nodded so as to not create a scene. But that’s just me speculating.)

The Fire Department also said harassment on the basis of Queen’s atheism wasn’t possible because they didn’t even know he was an atheist. Queen disputed that, saying that the comment about burning his house down was a direct response to his colleagues learning about his atheism.

In 2018. a judge ruled that there was more than enough reason for this case to move forward, as opposed to having it tossed out. There was plenty of information regarding religious discrimination and retaliation that a jury would have to sort out, the judge said, adding that the reasons the city wanted to dismiss the case were absurd.

In a 14-page ruling issued Friday, U.S. District Judge Joseph McKinley allowed the allegation of hostile work environment based on religion and claims of retaliation to proceed to trial.

“A reasonable jury could find that the harassment and threats were in retaliation for his complaints regarding the workplace,” McKinley said in his ruling. “According to Queen, his work environment got so bad that he had to take a medical leave of absence and eventually forced him to resign.”

McKinley ruled that Rockrohr could not be held individually liable on the hostile work environment claim, but may be held liable on the retaliation claim, stating that a jury could possibly find that Rockrohr did not act in good faith in handling Queen’s complaints.

It’s been a while since all that went down, but there was a new development in this case yesterday.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that neither the City nor Rockrohr should be granted immunity regarding the alleged violations of the Kentucky Civil Rights Act.

The state’s Claims Against Local Governments Act didn’t provide the city with qualified immunity from Queen’s religious harassment and retaliation claims under the Kentucky Civil Rights Act, [Judge John K.] Bush said. That law only applies to “actions in tort,” when the tort in question occurred in a municipality’s performance of some type of legislative or judicial function, the judge said.

That wasn’t the case here, and claims under the state civil-rights law are statutory, not tort-based, the Sixth Circuit said.

Rockrohr wasn’t entitled to qualified immunity because Queen’s right to be free from retaliation for workplace religious discrimination complaints was clearly established by 2012, Bush said. And a jury could find that the supervisor engaged in the sort of materially adverse employment action that violates anti-retaliation law when he directly told Queen he “should get employment elsewhere” in response to his harassment gripe, the judge said.

I know that’s a lot of legal jargon, but what it boils down to is this: The City said Queen couldn’t sue them because his claims were outside the scope of the law… but the Court said that’s not true. He can indeed sue them. What’s more, even though Rockrohr said the law gives him leeway to do his job, his alleged threat against Queen means he can’t get out of this case that easily either.

In short, this lawsuit is still going on. The City of Bowling Green wanted it thrown out but they failed. Again.

That’s good news for anyone who cares about justice, fights discrimination, and hates seeing bigotry coming from public servants. The Fire Department will get a chance to defend itself and its actions… but considering how hard they’ve tried to absolve themselves of any wrongdoing, it’s hard to imagine they’ll be able to win much sympathy from any jury.

(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Brian for the link. Large portions of this article were published earlier)

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