HOUSTON – A Catholic health educator recently filed a discrimination
charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against Legacy
Community Health (LCH), alleging she was fired because she refused to teach
about birth control.
In documents filed with the EEOC, Karen “Alexia” Palma alleges the religious accommodation her former employer
provided for one-and-a-half years ended with the appointment of a new
supervisor, Elizabeth Mondello, director of Legacy’s public health department. Palma
was required by Mondello to attend Planned Parenthood training and teach
patients about contraception.
“I told her that teaching about birth control
violates my sincerely held beliefs as a Catholic,” Palma said in court documents.
Previously Legacy allowed her to show patients a 20-minute video on
contraception in lieu of teaching the subject. Palma charges this was an easy
accommodation that did not cause the health center hardship.
In a June meeting Palma’s religious accommodation was revoked by Amy
Leonard, vice president of public health.
“If you don’t put your religious
beliefs aside, you can’t work here,” the documents quote Leonard as saying.
In that same meeting, Leonard allegedly told Palma that she knows “lots of
Catholics” who use birth control.
“The company gave Alexia an
ultimatum, violate your faith or be fired,” Jeremy Dys, senior counsel for
First Liberty Institute, the law firm representing Palma, said in a press release. “That’s a
violation of federal law and it is blatant religious discrimination.”
In most cases, employees must first file administrative complaints with
the EEOC, state or local fair employment practices agencies before going to
court. In Texas, administrative complaints can be due within 180 days after the
discriminatory event, and even earlier for federal employees.
“As presented, (we) believe, Ms.
Palma’s charge against Legacy Community Health raises valid and important
questions about whether or not her employer acted lawfully in response to her
request for a religious accommodation,” Susan Motley, president of the Texas
Employment Lawyers Association (TELA), told the Southeast Texas Record. “The case…is a good opportunity to educate
individuals about the mandatory administrative complaint process that most
employees must follow.”
In Texas, jurisdiction of local, state and federal agencies frequently
overlap in employment discrimination complaints. An agreement among these
agencies often allows for a complaint filed with one to be recognized as being
filed with the other agencies as well.
“Because these administrative complaints are often a mandatory
prerequisite to filing a lawsuit, they often make the enforcement process much
longer, much more complicated, and much more expensive than it might be
otherwise,” Motley said.
According to the EEOC’s website, 9,539 Texas workers filed discrimination
charges in 2015; 311 of those were religious charges. Retaliation is the most
prominent discrimination, with 4,642 individuals charging employers, or former
employers, last year.
“Regardless of which agency investigates the charge, in most cases, the
agency’s decision is not binding and has very little effect on a later filed
lawsuit,” Motley said.
Despite the outcome of the EEOC’s investigation in Palma’s
case, Motley said “TELA anticipates that she could pursue these claims in court, barring
any other events or circumstances that might prevent her from pursuing a