CDC officials had stated they were concerned that employees who were vulnerable and seeking counseling would face further stress from Walden’s explanation, instead of her giving a more neutral reason for referring them to other counselors.
Therefore, “the behavior for which she was discharged – the manner in which she referred Ms. Doe – was not protected conduct under the Free Exercise Clause. This is so because Ms. Walden’s religious beliefs did not require her to tell Ms. Doe the reason for the referral,” the appeals court held.
Client felt ‘judged and condemned’
Walden worked for Computer Sciences Corporation, which provided health and wellness services for the Center for Disease Control & Prevention’s employee assistance program. Under the contract, the CDC “could request the immediate removal of an EAP employee from the program,” the ruling noted.
Walden, who describes herself as “a devout Christian who believes that it is immoral to engage in same-sex sexual relationships,” told her supervisors that her religious beliefs would not allow her to provide counseling about gay relationship issues, according to court documents — although she said she could counsel lesbian and gay individuals about other issues. She discussed her beliefs with her supervisor at Computer Sciences Corporation after she referred a gay client to another counselor.
Problems began when Walden provided an intake counseling session for a lesbian CDC employee identified in court documents as Jane Doe. During the session, Doe disclosed that she and her female partner had been together for 18 years, that they had an 8 year old son, and she was very upset that her partner had forged her name on credit applications.
Walden states in court documents that she told Doe that she could not counsel her based on her “personal values.”
“I looked at her, and I told her that I could see she was in pain, and I wanted to make sure she got help. But after hearing what she had to say, 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,” Walden stated, as quoted in the ruling.
Doe then complained to CDC officials that she felt “judged and condemned” by Walden’s explanation.
Walden’s CSC supervisor, Gordon Hughes, discussed the complaint with her, asking her in the future to simply tell gay clients that she was inexperienced with relationship issues as a reason for referring them to someone else, rather than state that they conflict with her personal values.
Walden declined that approach, which she said would be lying.
“Neither she nor Mr. Hughes ever suggested other possible approaches,” the court noted in today’s ruling.
‘Personal, judgmental comments’
After further discussions with CSC officials about Walden, CDC employees Christie Zerbe and L. Casey Chosewood decided to ask that Walden no longer be part of the employee assistance program. CSC chose to lay her off because they had no other counseling projects in Atlanta, but offered her the option to look for other jobs with the company and to retain her tenure if she was rehired within a year.
Walden did not apply for other jobs with CSC, and instead sued, saying her rights to religious freedom were violated.
The district court granted summary judgment in favor of all of the defendants, which included the CDC, Computer Sciences Corporation, and Zerbe and Chosewood.
The three-judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit today affirmed that ruling in a decision that hinged on what Walden told Doe about why she would not counsel her.
“Ms. Zerbe was not concerned about the referrals themselves, but rather that Ms. Walden would convey in an unacceptable manner her reason for future referrals,” the court noted.
Chosewood held the same concern, according to the ruling.
“It is apparent from his testimony that his concern was that Ms. Walden would continue to make personal, judgmental comments to clients in connection with future referrals,” the ruling stated.