Friday, August 17, 2007

11th Circuit Rejects Dismissal of Free Exercise Claim By MSW Student

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals today issued an interesting split opinion in a First Amendment speech and free exercise case-- Watts v. Florida International University, (11th Cir., Aug. 17, 2007). The case arose when John Watts, a Master of Social Work student at Florida International, a state university, could not graduate because he had been terminated from participating in a required practicum in which he was enrolled at a private psychiatric hospital. His dismissal came after he advised a patient that she join a bereavement support group. When the patient asked where she could find such a group, Watts, noting that her record showed she was Catholic, indicated that "church" was one of the options. The hospital said that this was "inappropriate behavior related to patients, regarding religion."

The Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's dismissal of Watts free speech claim, finding that, under the Supreme Court decision in Connick v. Myers, the government as Watts' employer could dismiss him even though it was based on speech. He was not here speaking as a citizen on matters of public concern. The court assumed, without discussing the matter, that the Connick test does not apply to a dismissal of an employee for exercise of religious beliefs.

The majority (Carnes, J. with Hill, J. concurring in his opinion) then held that, at least on the pleadings, Watts stated a valid free exercise claim when his complaint alleged: "Mr. Watts' religious beliefs include the belief that a patient who professes a religion is entitled to be informed if the counselor is aware of a religious avenue within the patient's religion that will meet the appropriate therapy protocol for the patient. Mr. Watts' termination for his 'religious speech' evidences Defendants' intent to compel Mr. Watts to act contrary to his religious beliefs and constitutes a substantial burden on the exercise of his religious beliefs."

Judge Tjoflat dissenting argued that while Watts had adequately plead that his beliefs were sincere, he had not adequately plead that they were religious as opposed to philosophical or professional. The majority responded to this argument, saying that Supreme Court precedent indicates that Watts need only "plead that he believes his religion compels him to take the actions that resulted in his termination. He need not plead now, or present later, 'objective' evidence that his belief is of the type that a judge would generally consider to be religious in nature. Watts is not on the hook for our inability to understand his religious system." [Thanks to Joel L. Sogol via Religionlaw listserv for the lead.]