Court Concluded a Counselor’s Free Exercise of Religion Did Not Permit Him to Use Religious Counseling Methods

Can a juvenile court counselor be fired for using a "Christian perspective" in counseling emotionally

Can a juvenile court counselor be fired for using a "Christian perspective" in counseling emotionally disturbed adolescents? Yes, concluded a federal court in Virginia.

The counselor, who was a county employee, was discharged for his "stubborn insistence upon injecting his religious views into his counseling against the wishes of his superiors." The counselor sued the county, claiming that his discharge violated his constitutional right to religious freedom.

In rejecting this claim, the court observed that the counselor's right to exercise his religion was not absolute, but had to be balanced against the state's duty to avoid violating the first amendment's nonestablishment of religion clause and protecting the religious beliefs of others. The court concluded that "when the exercise of an individual's first amendment rights potentially violates free exercise rights of others or the mandates of the establishment clause, the individual's rights are not absolute. On the facts of this case, the court concludes that [the counselor's] constitutional right to the free exercise of his religion does not go so far as to permit him to use religious counseling methods against the orders of his superiors."

This conclusion was reinforced by the fact that the counselor was in a position of trust and his clients, "all of whom were young and many of whom were troubled, were a captive, impressionable audience." The court also observed that the counselor's behavior raised questions as to his suitability to work with emotionally disturbed youth. In particular, the court observed that the counselor had called one of his supervisors an "evil witch," encouraged clients to "go with The Force" (an allusion to the Star Wars films), and sent his superiors a letter accusing them of "crucifying the word and intention of the Lord as it was acting through him" (a copy of this letter was sent to President Reagan, Pope John Paul, and Billy Graham).

This case illustrates the danger of using government employment to engage in proselytizing. Cases upholding the legality of government chaplains serving the military, prisons, and tax-subsidized hospitals have similarly suggested that active proselytizing may raise questions as to the legality of such positions.

Langlotz v. Picciano, 683 F. Supp. 1041 (E.D. Va. 1988)

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