Testimony began Wednesday in a civil trial pitting a Florida arson investigator from Pensacola against supervisors he accuses of infringing on his religious freedom.
Plaintiff Kevin Fiedor contends he worked for the Florida Department of Financial Services for 22 years with no disciplinary problems until he started talking about his Christian faith and inviting co-workers to events at Marcus Pointe Baptist Church in Pensacola.
Fiedor alleged in a lawsuit last year that his supervisor demoted him and cut his annual salary from $72,921 to $65,629. He also accused the agency of unconstitutionally prohibiting him from posting religious materials on an office bulletin board.
Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who is presiding over the trial in Tallahassee, Florida, threw out part of the case last month. The judge ruled that the evidence points to other reasons for Fiedor’s demotion – namely his failure to deal with unrelated management and personnel issues within his bureau.
Even if Fiedor’s demotion was partially the result of his religious advocacy, the judge ruled, he is not entitled to sue on those grounds because of evidence that employees serving under him felt pressured.
“Fiedor’s demotion was not improper,” Hinkle wrote. “And even if he was prevented from engaging in protected activity – not an obvious proposition – the law supporting that result was not clearly established. For this purpose, context matters.”
The judge also ruled that three officials originally named in the suit have immunity because they were acting in their official capacity.
That leaves one major question for jurors to decide this week – whether Division of Investigative and Forensic Services Director Simon Blank and the agency improperly prohibited Fiedor from talking about his religion or posting material on a bulletin board at work.
“We believe that as American citizens, we have the right to religious freedom and expression,” said Jonathan Bailie, chief operations officer of the National Center for Life & Liberty. “And so, we believe that whether you’re in a public workplace or in a public area that you have the right and the ability to freely talk about and convey things about your faith and what you believe, as long as you don’t infringe on the rights of others.”
Bailie’s group took Fiedor’s case and provided lawyers to argue it.
But lawyers for the state argue that there was no policy preventing Fiedor from posting religious material on the bulletin board and that Blank never told him there was. Attorneys argue that if a mid-level supervisor told Fiedor that such a policy existed, as he claims, it was an error.
Hinkle wrote that is a factual dispute to be settled at trial.
Bailie said a basic constitutional liberty is at stake.
“We don’t think that is a good precedent to be set, that the department can make these decisions based on what they deem or do not deem to be allowed in their workplace as a public government entity,” he said.
The trial is expected to conclude Thursday. With part of the case having been dismissed, Bailie acknowledged, Fiedor would not be able to win as much in damages if he prevails on the remaining issues.
“But it does still provide for him to see that justice be done in this situation, especially on his behalf concerning the right to religious expression at the workplace,” he said.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that a jury would decide the case. In fact, it was a bench trial.