RELIGION

Kansas trial to examine bias claim against Kobach's office

A former employee in Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach's office alleges in a lawsuit headed to trial Monday that she was fired because she didn't go to church enough.

Kobach — who until the middle of 2016 held after-hours Christian prayer and Bible study sessions in his office — has called the allegation of religious discrimination by Courtney Canfield "ridiculous." His office contends she was fired over performance issues.

The lawsuit blames Kobach's chief deputy, Eric Rucker, for the firing and Kobach himself is not a defendant. But the case is sure to draw attention to Kobach, a Republican with a national reputation for championing tough voter identification laws and helping to draft proposals in numerous states aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration.

Kobach, who is serving as vice chairman of President Donald Trump's commission on election fraud, is also running for Kansas governor in 2018, and both foes and voters are likely to watch the case for hints about how he might govern.

Canfield worked in Kobach's office for more than nine months in 2013. She learned of her firing from her grandmother, a longtime Republican Party volunteer who knew Rucker.

Gary Laughlin, an attorney for Canfield, said the handling of her firing was "odd," with no notice ever coming from a supervisor.

"Religion is very, very important in the office under Secretary of State Kobach," Laughlin added. "The overall tenor in the office was very religious."

The lawsuit alleges that Rucker told the grandmother "repeatedly and emphatically" during a November 2013 meeting at the grandmother's home that Canfield — a Methodist who did not regularly attend services — was being fired because, "She just doesn't go to church." Rucker will deny that at trial, said David Cooper, an attorney for Rucker and the secretary of state's office.

Kobach answered questions under oath for attorneys in June. He is not expected to appear at trial, but parts of his videotaped session may be played to jurors.

In that testimony, Kobach said he had "very limited interaction" with Canfield and wasn't even notified when she was hired for an "entry level" job in the elections division. Kobach also said he would fire any supervisor who used religion as a reason to terminate an employee.

"I have no knowledge of whether any of my employees attend church, nor would I seek to obtain such knowledge," said Kobach, who testified that he was raised Lutheran and now attends a nondenominational church in Lawrence.

Cooper called the case a "garden-variety" lawsuit alleging employment discrimination.

"It's not a complex or unusual case of this variety," he said. "The uniqueness of it is: It is the office of somebody who gets some national attention."

Kobach spokeswoman Samatha Poetter called the case "baseless."

"It is important to stand up to frivolous lawsuits like this one," she added.

The lawsuit is set to be tried before an eight-person jury, and the presiding judge is U.S. Magistrate Gary Sebelius, the husband of former Democratic Gov. and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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