Christian Leaders Demand Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal Protect Pastor’s Religious Freedom

An evangelist inmate reads the Bible with their fellow prisoners in the Colina prison in Santiago, Chile, August 22, 2014.

Christian leaders are calling on Republican Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to block a state legal demand that a Christian lay pastor hand over his sermons, sermon notes, and even his Bible.

The man has already been fired from his position as a state district health director, allegedly because he preached about Christian principles in his sermons.

Last month, Georgia’s Attorney General Sam Olens issued a request for production of documents — similar to a subpoena — which demands that Dr. Eric Walsh turn over all sermon notes and sermon transcripts for review by the state.

Walsh, however, is refusing to hand over transcripts of sermons he has given in which he preaches about Christian life, including the topics of marriage, sexuality, and creation. An African American public health professional, Walsh has two doctoral degrees and was hired by the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) in May of 2014 after serving on President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDs. He is also associate pastor of his Seventh Day Adventist church.

“The State of Georgia’s brazen discrimination against an individual on the basis of his religious beliefs violates everything we believe in as a nation,” said Jane Robbins, a senior fellow at American Principles Project, in a statement. “It is wrong, and it is illegal.”

Robbins continued:

But in attempting to defend an indefensible decision, the State is now requiring a Christian minister to surrender his sermon notes for inspection under the threat of law. It is difficult to imagine a more blatant violation of America’s founding principles.

American Principles Project urges the State to withdraw its attempt to intimidate Dr. Walsh and other potential plaintiffs by demanding access to his sermons and sermon notes, and to make him whole for any losses he has incurred because of the State’s illegal conduct. Anything else will suggest that people of faith need not apply for government jobs in Georgia.

In April, Walsh was fired from DPH allegedly because Georgia officials did not agree with his sermons.

“I couldn’t believe they fired me because of things I talked about in my sermons,” said Walsh. “It was devastating. I have been unable to get a job in public health since then.”

Walsh’s attorneys at First Liberty Institute filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court, in which they alleged that the state violated their client’s rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, as well as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The lawsuit seeks financial compensation for Walsh and a federal court order forcing Georgia to halt discrimination against Americans of faith on the basis of their religious beliefs.

“The state insists that it did not fire Dr. Walsh over his religious beliefs or sermons. If that’s true, why is it demanding copies of his sermons now?” said Jeremy Dys, senior Counsel for First Liberty Institute, in a statement. “It’s clear the government fired Dr. Walsh over his religious beliefs, which is blatant religious discrimination.”

Family Research Council (FRC) expressed its outrage at the state of Georgia, and launched a petition at that calls on Deal to “correct this egregious overreach of the state into church affairs.”

“This demand for Dr. Eric Walsh’s sermons, sermons notes, and ministerial documentation is an alarming display of government intrusion into the sanctity of the church, pastor’s study, and pulpit,” said Tony Perkins, Family Research Council President and also an ordained pastor. “This is something that I would have expected to see in a communist country, not America.”

Perkins added:

The pulpit is to be governed only by the Word of God. Government scrutiny of speech in the pulpit is unconstitutional, and unconscionable. Family Research Council stands with Dr. Walsh, and any other pastor who is targeted by the government because of what is said in the pulpit. We call on Gov. Deal to correct this egregious overreach of the state into church affairs.

Travis Weber, FRC’s director of Center for Religious Liberty, also said:

We’ve recently seen the former Mayor of Houston issue subpoenas against pastors in Houston, Texas, seeking their sermons. This action against Dr. Walsh is another unjust assault on people of faith, including the pulpit itself. This cannot go unchallenged. We support Dr. Walsh in his resistance, and call upon the Georgia government to act according to the law and traditions of our country, which respect people of faith and the autonomy of the church.

Similarly, Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, said, “The state of Georgia’s blatant attack on religious freedom, as they discriminate against another pastor, Dr. Eric Walsh, is indeed a threat to every American, whatever our religious beliefs.”

Nance added that the state of Georgia’s actions are “part of a troubling pattern that is very dangerous.”

“Can there be a clearer violation of our First Amendment right to religious freedom than for the state to monitor, examine, and retaliate against a person because of the sermons they share?” she asked.