An officer of the LAPD has sued the City of Los Angeles and its Police Department, alleging First Amendment violations and religious discrimination. The officer’s claims are based on off-duty statements he made regarding the Bible’s teachings on homosexual acts.
The officer, Sgt. Eric Holyfield, a Christian pastor, quoted Bible passages during a eulogy for a fellow officer, explaining that homosexuality “was an abomination” and that persons who engage in homosexual conduct “must repent or be condemned to hell.”
Holyfield was removed from his “coveted assignment in Community Relations” and assigned to patrol “without due process and in violation of his First Amendment rights.”
To survive dismissal of a First Amendment claim, a public employee must sufficiently allege that he was acting in his capacity as a citizen–not in his employment capacity. This has been a difficult burden for many plaintiffs to overcome. Here, Holyfield is apparently aware of the requirement. He alleges that his speech was made in his role as a minister in the community, not a police officer. He also points out that he was on vacation that day, he was in a church, which was outside the city, and was dressed in civilian clothes. All of these factors weigh strongly in favor of a finding that he was not speaking as a police officer when he gave the sermon that resulted in his transfer.
Given the fervor relating to Barack Obama’s ties to Reverend Jeremiah Wright, it will be particularly interesting to see whether Holyfield’s First Amendment and religious discrimination claims will survive a motion to dismiss.