We have been discussing the increasing monitoring and punishment of public employees for statements made during their personal time, including speech normally protected as free speech. The latest example of this trend is Dr. Eric Walsh, a public health expert who also serves as a lay minister. Walsh was fired for sermons on issues ranging from homosexuality to evolution. He has now filled a lawsuit and could prove important in exploring the protection for public employees with regard to political and religious speech outside of work. There remains an uncertain line as to the right of public employees to engage in free speech outside of work that may be offensive or insulting to particular groups or faiths. As a general rule, free speech demands bright-line rules to avoid the chilling effects that come with such uncertainty.
According to a press release, “Dr. Eric Walsh has multiple advanced degrees who served on President Obama’s Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDs.” He position was to be the District Health Director for Northwest Georgia, a position that could presumably be fulfilled without the expression or application of his religious views as a lay minister.
A Seventh Day Adventist lay minister, Walsh spoke freely on issues like health, homosexuality, marriage, sexuality, world religions, science and creationism. That allegedly did not sit well with the Georgia Department of Public Health, which has made no comment on the lawsuit.
The investigation of Walsh’s sermons followed his hiring as a district health director on May 7, 2014. A few days later, DPH officers and other government workers opened up an investigation into his sermons and views. On May 16, the DPH announced it had rescinded the job offer. It said that the “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.”
Obviously, it is important to hear the side of the state as to why Walsh was viewed as unacceptable based on such sermons. However, it seems to me that holding anti-homosexual views alone should not be a barrier for a minister so long as he complies with state guidelines and policies in the performance of his duties. That is clearly not the view of the Health Initiative, an Atlanta-based group supporting LGBT health issues. The organization’s direction insisted that “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.”
The countervailing concern however concerns the increasing scrutiny for public employees, particularly due to social media posting. We have previously seen teachers (here, here, England, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here), here, here, students (here and here) and other public employees (here and here and here) fired for their private speech or conduct, including school employees fired for posing in magazines (here), appearing on television shows in bikinis (here), or having a prior career in the adult entertainment industry (here).
The concerns are acute in this case due to the exercise of free speech on core religious values and beliefs. Just as I would be equally concerned about the firing of a minister for espousing LGBT rights and values, the question is when a person’s moral views can or should be grounds for termination. We need to see the answer of the Department to see if Walsh’s general religious view of homosexuality was the driving force behind the action or whether there were other questions raised over his qualifications. For the moment, there are legitimate questions raised by the action and deserve to be answered.
What do you think?