SAN DIEGO, Calif. The chief of police for Veterans Administration San Diego Health Care System, who was suspended for workplace religious speech, has been restored to his position after an administrative hearing.
"There are, however, a few unresolved issues," said Dean Broyles, president and founder of the National Center for Law & Policy.
Broyles represented Alvin Pittman, a Messianic Jew who had served the VA for years without issue. Pittman has filed a complaint against the administrative official that took action against him with the Equal Employment Office. A mediation hearing on that part of the case will be considered in the coming weeks.
"We think the response from the administrative entities or individuals involved was a gross over-reaction that basically treated him like a criminal," Broyles said.
According to Broyles, Pittman was disciplined after he quoted Scripture at the office with Catholic and Christian employees.
"The primary issue that was being addressed was the allegation that he shared two Proverbs from the Old Testament with three of his employees in a meeting," Broyles said.
After receiving a complaint, the acting assistant director at the VA issued a cease-and-desist letter to Pittman alleging that the chief engaged in behavior that could be considered "harassment" and ordered him to "stop immediately" using all "religious references in the workplace."
"Apparently the VA thought this was a serious offense," the attorney said. "We strongly assume at least one or two of the people in that meeting complained, based on the questions asked of (Pittman) in the investigation."
Pittman refused to sign the cease-and desist document but agreed to attend an EEO class, prompting his bosses to ban him from his office and reassign him to a cubicle. An Administrative Investigation Board investigation was also launched. Pittman was later notified that he had been replaced by his deputy chief.
Broyles represented Pittman at his May 2 AIB hearing, and, although officials refused to return him to his job, they withdrew the cease-and-desist order. In mid-June, the AIB exonerated Pittman of the charges and restored him to his post.
"It was rather obvious there was really nothing to the allegations against him," Broyles said of his client. "They were bogus, fabricated, blown-out-of- proportion allegations. We were relatively confident that if he had fair review board that he in fact would be exonerated, and he was."
Broyles said the incident is the latest in a serious of anti-religious actions taken by the Veteran's Administration in the past year. Last summer, a federal lawsuit was filed alleging that officials at Houston National Cemetery order clergy not to use the phrase "In Jesus' name" when conducting funerals there. In September, officials at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center issued new guidelines for visitors that banned families and friends from bringing Bibles and religious materials to patients there. After public outcry, the order was quickly reversed.
"Why in the last few years are we getting all these VA cases?
Broyles warned that the free speech violations such as these have broader implications because of their "negative trickle-down" effect.
"This is one of the purer forms of First Amendment violations that can exist out there because it's a federal government infringing on the First Amendment rights of a citizen," he said.
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