Can a state government demand to see the sermons preached by a public health professional who is also a part-time pastor? And can it, after seeing those sermons, rescind an agreed-upon job offer made to that highly-credentialed professional?
It would seem not, because the facts are just too suggestive of a causal relationship between the sermon investigation and the job-yanking. We would seem to have here a violation of the Free Exercise Clause, and also of the Religious Test Clause, which originally applied only to federal officials but was extended to state officials by the Supreme Court in Torcaso v. Watkins (1961).
Dr. Eric Walsh is an African-American man who rose out of poverty to earn both an MD and PhD in public health. In 2014 the Georgia Department of Public Health scored a recruitment success when it hired Dr. Walsh away from his public health job in Pasadena, Calif., to become Georgia’s Director of Public Health.
But then — in a series of events that remains murky but will no doubt be thrashed out in lawsuit Dr. Walsh has recently filed — Georgia officials demanded that Dr. Walsh turn over to it videos of sermons he had preached in his role as an associate pastor at his Seventh-day Adventist church.
Many smaller religious denominations in our country get by with the help of part-time pastors, who often excel in their primary careers outside their church, as Dr. Walsh has. The Seventh-day Adventists, for their part, hold strongly traditional beliefs on many issues. Last time I looked, the Constitution allowed them to do this without penalty. They also have a history of interest in health: their hospitals are some of the best in the nation. I myself had an Adventist colleague who always took the stairs even when most of us used the elevator. Incidentally we were buddies even though I belong to one group (Catholics) that you’d think Adventists have issues with, if you knew about them only from the media.
Thus, Dr. Eric Walsh: credentialed and proven public health official, generous giver of his time and effort with the church that he credits with seeing him through a difficult youth, faithful preacher of that church’s teachings, and now, fired from two jobs (the one in Pasadena and the one in Georgia) after officials in Georgia demanded to — how did they put it again? — see his sermons. (You remember Georgia: the state that tried to pass a religious freedom bill, only to see it vetoed by its Republican governor, Nathan Deal, under pressure from various powerful corporations. Where were the critics of corporate power then? I couldn’t hear them.)
David Wagner is a former schoolteacher, Department of Justice speechwriter, Hill staffer, and law professor.