May 29, 2001
(Minneapolis, Minnesota) — The American Center for Law and Justice, an international public interest law firm, announced today that a federal appeals court has overturned a lower court decision giving three state employees in Minnesota the right to proceed to trial on their First Amendment claims against the Minnesota Department of Corrections, which punished them in 1997 for reading their Bibles during a "Gays and Lesbians in the Workplace" training session.
"This finding underscores the fact that the constitutional rights of our clients were damaged by the actions of the Minnesota Department of Corrections,â€ said Francis J. Manion, Senior Counsel of the ACLJ, which represents the three employees. â€œIt was clear that our clients were singled out and punished for their religious beliefs. We achieved a partial victory at the district court level in 1999 and now with the decision of the federal appeals court â€“ it is clear that the Minnesota Department of Corrections lashed out at our clients in a manner that was not only wrong, but unconstitutional.â€
The ACLJ filed suit in April 1998 against the Department of Corrections on behalf of Thomas Altman, Ken Yackly and Kristen Larson to force their employer to rescind the reprimands they received in 1997 following the controversial state-mandated training session entitled "Gays and Lesbians in the Workplace."
Throughout the training session, the employees neither did nor said anything, which was intended to disrupt, disturb or otherwise interfere with the trainersâ€™ presentations. They participated in the session and from time to time read silently from their Bibles.
At no time during the session did Corrections officials instruct the three employees to put away their Bibles. In November 1997, each of the employees received a written reprimand from corrections officials â€œfor inappropriate and unprofessional conduct . . .â€ The ACLJ challenged the action in federal court claiming the action violated both federal and state laws.
In August 1999, U.S. District Court Judge Ann D. Montgomery found that the actions of the state violated the free exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment, but threw out the rest of the ACLJ lawsuit â€“ which focused on free speech and equal protections claims. While the judge ordered the state to remove reprimands from the personnel files of the employees, the judge refused to permit the employees to continue to pursue damages in a trial for lost wages and promotions.
While the ACLJ welcomed the findings of Judge Montgomery concerning the free exercise of religion, it appealed the remainder of the decision in order to vindicate the free speech and equal protection claims of the clients and to obtain the relief for the clients.
In an unanimous decision issued today, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit reversed the decision of the district court and ordered that the case go to trial and rejected claims made by the state that the employees were guilty of insubordination.
â€œThis decision confirms that government employers cannot single out religious speech or religious symbols for punishment,â€ said Manion. â€œThese employees did no more than bring Bibles to a training session with which they disagreed, and they were punished for it. Weâ€™re very pleased that we now have the opportunity to prove our case in court.â€