FOIA Revelations Point towards Religious Discrimination in Georgia | Sara Christiansen

While FOIA requests may take years to retrieve, sometimes the revelations are worth the wait.

Dr. Eric Walsh
Dr. Eric Walsh (Photo courtesy of First Liberty)

Such appears to be the case in the matter of Dr. Eric Walsh, M.D., DPH, v. Georgia Department of Public Health. Walsh was hired and fired from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) in May 2014, under questionable circumstances.

Recent revelations retrieved through FOIA requests issued by the First Liberty Institute, Walsh’s counsel, cast aspersions upon the state and raise significant concerns about religious discrimination. First Liberty filed their federal lawsuit against DPH on April 20, 2016.

Walsh’s troubles began after he was hired as a district health director by the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) on May 7, 2014. He was working as the public health director for the city of Pasadena, California at the time.

Walsh previously served on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDs for both the Bush and Obama administrations and established Pasadena’s first dental clinic for impoverished families suffering from HIV/AIDS.

Walsh also served as a board member of the city’s Latino Health Collaborative. In his spare time, Walsh served as the associate pastor for a Pasadena-area Seventh Day Adventist Church.

Despite Walsh’s stellar activities serving his community, controversy arose when students at Pasadena City College learned that he was asked to speak at their upcoming commencement ceremony. Although the college officially listed a “scheduling conflict” as the reason why Walsh would no longer be attending the commencement, that didn’t stop Pasadena government officials from placing the director on administrative leave while they conducted an investigation into Walsh’s sermon topics.

“Dr. Eric Walsh has been placed on temporary paid administrative leave to provide the city of Pasadena the opportunity to complete an inquiry into statements made by him in his private capacity and to assess the impact those statements might have on his ability to effectively lead the city’s Public Health Department,” said City Manager Beck.

Mere days after news of the California inquiry, DPH staffs were tasked to review sermons Walsh preached, away from work – serving his calling as a lay pastor. After viewing Walsh’s sermons on topics including Islam, evolution, homosexuality and pop culture, DPH officials terminated his contract.

“He was fired for something he said in a sermon,” said First Liberty attorney Jeremy Dys. “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.”

As validation of this statement, First Liberty has produced documents pertaining to the internal investigation conducted by DPH staff after they learned of the Pasadena events. In a written response to the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Division (EEOC), First Liberty revealed emails sent by DPH’s director of human resources, Lee Rudd. In one mailing, Rudd directed her staff to review and take notes on Walsh’s sermons, after hours – even offering commentary on what she had already listened to, personally.

“[Walsh] is our new hire…I promise,” said Rudd. “He speaks all over the place. This is not the guy you were listening to this morning.”

FOIA documents revealed nearly 100 pages of internal evaluations from those who interviewed Walsh, with the overwhelming approval of his potential hire. Dr. Jack Kennedy – district health director for the Cobb and Douglas Health Districts – was so impressed with Dr. Walsh after his extensive interview that he directly advocated for Walsh’s hire with Commissioner Brenda Fitzgerald.

“I feel quite certain that we will not be seeing a more qualified candidate for DHD any time in the near future,” said Kennedy, who continued “…this is not lobbying, it’s just education.”

All of that changed, seemingly overnight, once word of the Pasadena matter came to light. In that case, Walsh purportedly reached a settlement with the city and agreed to step down.

In Georgia, after reviewing Walsh’s sermons and under heavy pressure from the Health Initiative, an Atlanta-based group which calls itself “Georgia’s Voice for LGBTQ Health,” and other community partners, DPH rescinded their job offer to Walsh. The state asserts the act came on the heels of their learning that Walsh held outside employment in California – not because of his religious beliefs.

“Georgia Department of Public Health policy requires the disclosure and written approval of secondary employment held by its employees,” the department said in a statement.

“Dr. Walsh was extended a conditional offer of employment by DPH, subject to passing a routine background check,” the statement said. “During the background check process, DPH learned Walsh failed to disclose outside employment to his previous public health employer, which also was in violation of California law.

“Due to violation of both California state law and DPH policy, the offer to Dr. Walsh was rescinded. During his interview, Dr. Walsh disclosed his religious beliefs to DPH staff and indicated that he preached at his church in California. Dr. Walsh’s religious beliefs had nothing to do with the decision to withdraw the offer.”

FOIA responses present quite a different progression of events than what the state contends in this matter. One unnamed DPH staffer’s memo acknowledges the witch hunt with brutal clarity and concern.

“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 staff member wrote.

“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 staff member said.

The Liberty Institute takes the matter further by citing Title VII violations in the rescinded job offer. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prevents government employers from using an applicant’s religious beliefs in any employment decisions.

According to U.S.C.S. § 2000e-2(m) “. . . an unlawful employment practice is established when the complaining party demonstrates that . . . religion . . . was a motivating factor for any employment practice, even though other factors also motivated the practice.”  FOIA documents revealed an offer, acceptance, and a welcome to Georgia from the DPH to Walsh – until such time as the department illegally investigated his religious beliefs.

Walsh contends he has been unable to secure a position in public health administration since this action.

“I couldn’t believe they fired me because of things I talked about in my sermons,” Walsh said. “It was devastating.”

While this case may take years to reach a conclusion, FOIA revelations offer a factual foundation for Walsh’s religious discrimination suit.

Only time will tell what the outcome will be; but for now, in the matter of FOIA versus government spin, strike one in the win column for the FOIA.