On a day when we can celebrate a major legal victory for marriage rights – the Ninth Circuit’s rejection of California’s Proposition 8 – a court on the other side of the country quietly issues a complementary decision, holding that a public employer need not accommodate the anti-gay religious beliefs of a benefits counselor who declares her refusal to assist same-sex couples.
Walden v. Centers for Disease Control, No. 10-11733 (11th Cir. Feb. 7, 2012): The plaintiff, Walden, served as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counselor, who furnishes health and wellness services to employees. The Centers for Disease Control retrained their counselors through a private-sector contract agency, Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC).
While EAP guidelines required non-discriminatory provision of services, Walden “believes that her religion prohibits her from encouraging or supporting same-sex relationships through counseling, meaning that she may not provide relationship counseling to individuals in same-sex relationships.” Thus, she asked to be excused from providing relationship counseling to employees in same-sex couples.
In one incident, Walden informed a lesbian client that “based on my personal values, I recognized I was not the best counselor for her. . . . I also told her that I realized that my personal values would interfere with our client/therapist relationship, and that wasn’t fair to her.” The client complained, finding Walden’s explanation confusing and demeaning. Following an investigation by the agency, it directed CSC to remove Walden from the contract. The CDC concluded that there was too great a risk that Walden might give a similar explanation to future clients. CSC laid Walden off, making her eligible for re-employment.
Walden, in turn, sued the CDC and other defendants for violations of constitutional free exercise and free speech, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and Title VII. The district court granted summary judgment on all claims.
The Eleventh Circuit affirms. After determining that declaratory relief would not lie in this case (because the plaintiff was seeking relief only for a past injury), it reaches the issue of whether the employee’s rights were violated by the removal. The panel holds that – whatever her bona fide religious beliefs might be – Walden was removed from the contract not for her beliefs, but for her tactlessness, i.e., “because of the manner in which she handled Ms. Doe’s referral, and because they were concerned that she would behave the same way if a similar situation were to arise in the future.” The panel also notes that Walden never voiced an alternative to her plan to tell future clients about her religious convictions and opposition to same-sex relationships.
Under Title VII, moreover, the Court finds that the agency that employed Walden, CSC, sufficiently offered a reasonable accommodation: ” . . .CSC reasonably accommodated Ms. Walden when it encouraged her to obtain new employment with the company and offered her assistance in obtaining a new position. Because of Ms. Walden’s laid off status, she would have retrained her tenure had CSC rehired her within a year in another position. Although other positions were available, Ms. Walden did not apply for any of them.”