A woman who worked as a counselor for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claims she was wrongly fired because of religious discrimination for refusing to advise a woman in a same-sex relationship, and she asked a federal appeals court Thursday to let her bring a lawsuit against the Atlanta-based agency.
There's no dispute that a woman came to Marcia Walden in 2007 for advice involving a same-sex relationship, and Walden was let go after she told the woman she couldn't help because her "personal values" as a devout Christian prevented her from offering any assistance. The woman, who was not named in legal filings, complained to administrators that she felt "judged and condemned" by Walden after the encounter.
The company that the CDC had hired to provide counseling services, Computer Sciences Corporation, terminated Walden at the CDC's request.
The CDC and the company told the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that Walden could have simply referred the employee to another counselor without explanation. They argued that Walden's religious beliefs didn't require her to tell the client about her moral objections to engaging in same-sex relationship counseling.
"The CDC intervened and said we can't have a counselor who wants to exclude an entire segment of the population," said Jeffrey Schwartz, an attorney for the contractor. "It would destroy the integrity of the program. People don't want to come in and see a counselor if they are going to be kicked in the knees."
CDC attorney Matthew Collette added that the firm's contract allows a counselor with a religious conflict to refer a case to another staffer, but bars the counselor from broadcasting feelings that "would cause potentially serious damage" to the program.
Walden's attorneys countered that she was left little other option by the CDC and the contractor but to object on religious grounds. Attorney Jim Campbell said she was instructed to tell the client she didn't have the experience to handle the case, even though she had extensive background in helping clients with relationship issues.
"She was targeted for mistreatment based on her religious beliefs," said Campbell, a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative religious rights organization that took the case. "It's not her burden to come up with an excuse. She was offered one dishonest option _ to say she didn't have the expertise to handle the case _ and she refused it."
The three-judge panel didn't immediately rule, but two of the judges expressed skepticism about Walden's case. U.S. Circuit Judge Charles R. Wilson questioned whether Walden even had grounds to bring the lawsuit.
Campbell, though, said the panel needed to step in to decide whether the CDC infringed on her "sincerely held religious beliefs."
"Counselors have an ethical obligation to refer _ and that's in the highest interest of the client so they can get the best advice," said Campbell. "And that's what happened in this case."