Published April 20, 2016
Bi-vocational pastors be warned – what you say from the pulpit on Sunday could get you fired from your public sector job on Monday.
Dr. Eric Walsh, a renowned public health expert who also serves as a lay minister, has filed a federal lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Public Health alleging he was terminated for delivering sermons on issues ranging from homosexuality to evolution.
“No one in this country should be fired from their job for something that was said in a church or from a pulpit during a sermon,” said First Liberty attorney Jeremy Dys.
First Liberty, one of the nation’s largest law firms defending religious liberty, is representing the Seventh Day Adventist lay minister.
They contend that the Georgia Department of Public Health assigned workers to investigate sermons Dr. Walsh delivered on health, marriage, sexuality, world religions, science and creationism. He also preached on what the Bible says about homosexuality.
“He was fired for something he said in a sermon,” Dys told me. “If the government is allowed to fire someone over what he said in his sermons, they can come after any of us for our beliefs on anything.”
First Liberty has accused the government agency of religious discrimination and retaliation.
“I don’t believe I did anything wrong,” Dr. Walsh told me in an exclusive interview. “This has been very painful for me. I really am a strong believer in the Constitution. But now I feel like maybe all these ideals and values that I was raised to believe – the ideals they country was founded upon – no longer exist.”
A spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) did not return telephone calls nor did they respond to email inquiries.
First Liberty said Walsh was hired as a district health director on May 7, 2014. A few days later, DPH officers and other government workers began investigating his religious activities.
“DPH officers and other employees spent hours reviewing these and other of Dr. Walsh’s sermons and other public addresses available online, analyzing and taking notes on his religious beliefs and viewpoints on social, cultural and other matters of public concern as expressed in the sermons and other public addresses,” the lawsuit states.
The behavior of the DPH was so egregious that its own counsel twice warned them on May 15 that “under federal law Dr. Walsh’s religious beliefs could play no role in any employment decision by DPH.”
But on May 16, the DPH announced it had rescinded the job offer that Dr. Walsh had already accepted.
“Today’s action by the department follows a thorough examination of Dr. Walsh’s credentials and background as well as consultation with the six local boards of health which comprise the district,” spokesman Ryan Deal said in a news release.
And the Department of Public Health wasn't the only organization concerned about the pastor's sermons.
The Georgia Voice reported that the Health Initiative, an Atlanta-based group committed to LGBT health issues, strongly opposed Welsh’s hiring.
“Dr. Walsh’s public displays of anti-gay propaganda and religious rhetoric will become symbols of the department and will further isolate an already vulnerable population. We believe this hire is detrimental to the wellbeing of our community, as well as to the effectiveness of the Department to conduct meaningful outreach to LGBT Georgians,” Executive Director Ellis told the publication.
Based on documents First Liberty obtained through a FOIA request, it is clear there was some internal concerns about how Dr. Walsh had been treated.
In spite of the DPH’s internal witch hunt against Dr. Walsh, at least one unnamed staffer wrote a memo warning that the entire controversy had been blown “impossibly out of proportion.”
“Not only is there no smoking gun, there is every reason to believe, even from his detractors own words, that he is the excellent health director we believed he would be,” the staffer wrote in a document obtained by First Liberty through a FOIA request.
“If we do not hire this applicant on the basis of the evidence of job performance and disqualify him on the basis of discrimination by those who seek to advance their own agenda and do him harm, I believe we are no better than they are,” the staffer concluded.
The unnamed staffer’s concerns were ignored and Dr. Walsh was terminated.
Dr. Walsh was catapulted into the national spotlight earlier in 2014 when he was invited to deliver the commencement address at Pasadena City College in California.
Walsh, who was then the director of the city’s public health department, came under fierce scrutiny from LGBT activists and students. He backed out of the speaking engagement. But critics persisted and he was forced to resign his post – after reaching a financial settlement with the city.
Dys tells me that what happened to Dr. Walsh should give every American the chills.
“The idea of those government employees dividing up the sermons is unthinkable,” he said. “Religious liberty means we should be able to find sanctuary in our own sanctuary.”
In recent days, the state of Georgia has become a battleground over religious liberty.
Governor Nathan Deal, a Republican, vetoed legislation that would have provided protection for pastors and other faith-based organizations from attacks by LGBT activists. The veto was levied under fierce pressure from big business bullies like Disney and Coca-Cola.
It’s unclear whether such a law would have protected Dr. Walsh.
“Any law a state passes that helps protect religious liberty – especially a law that allows pastors the right to preach and not lose their jobs – is a law we would certainly apply in this case,” Dys said.
It’s becoming clear to me that people of faith – people like Dr. Walsh -- will not find safe refuge in the state of Georgia.
First, they silenced the sheep – and now they are trying to silence the shepherds.