Court to Decide Whether Deputy Can be Fired for Refusing to Work Alone With Women

(The Washington Post) -
(Lee County Sheriff’s Office)

A former sheriff’s deputy has filed a lawsuit alleging he was fired over objections to training a female employee alone, elevating a practice named after the late evangelical minster Billy Graham, from a cultural battle to a legal one.

Manuel Torres, 51, said he told the Lee County Sheriff’s Office in North Carolina that he could not be alone with the female deputy in his patrol car because it would violate his religious beliefs.

Torres “holds the strong and sincere religious belief that the Holy Bible prohibits him, as a married man, from being alone for extended periods with a female who is not his wife,” says the federal lawsuit, which may be the first of its kind.

Grant Wacker, a professor at Duke Divinity School told The Washington Post he was unaware of other court cases related to the “Billy Graham Rule.”

The decision to avoid one-on-one time with a woman is commonly attributed to the influential pastor’s policy of never traveling, eating or meeting alone with a woman other than his wife. Some evangelical pastors and others have emulated Graham’s approach in an effort to ensuring no one wrongly suspects any untoward behavior.

The Billy Graham Rule has been scrutinized in recent years after Vice President Mike Pence’s policy of not eating alone with women other than his wife came under a spotlight. Pence also avoids attending events that include alcohol without his wife, Karen Pence. A candidate for Mississippi governor, state Rep. Robert Foster, a Republican, drew criticism in July when he said his adherence to the rule prevented him from letting a female reporter shadow him.

To some, the Billy Graham Rule is a noble way for men to protect their marriages. In the eyes of others, the guidelines exclude women from important conversations about work and career advancement.

Torres alleges that in July 2017 he asked a sergeant for a religious accommodation, which was alternately granted and denied. When Torres complained about the decision to two lieutenants, he claims the sergeant retaliated by ignoring Torres’s call for backup while responding to a car crash.

That September, the chief deputy told Torres he was angry about Torres’s request for a religious accommodation, according to the suit. The chief allegedly fired Torres without explanation days later.

Torres also claims the towns of Siler City and Apex passed him over for a job because the sheriff’s office gave them falsely negative referrals. He has filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the sheriff’s office and both towns, according to the lawsuit.

The town manager for Apex, Drew Havens, declined to comment on the lawsuit. Jennifer Gamble, a deputy county attorney for Lee County, said Torres’s allegations are under review. Representatives of Siler City did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The former sheriff’s officer’s lawsuit, Wacker said, pits religious freedom against freedom from discrimination in a common type of public battle.