JACKSON, Miss. — A federal judge in Mississippi has ruled against a public university professor that was allegedly punished for sharing his faith, stating that government employees do not have a right to promote a specific religion in the classroom.
According to reports, Thomas Payne, a professor in the criminal justice department at the University of Southern Mississippi, received negative evaluations, was denied a promotion, and was told that his contract would not be renewed after a student that identifies as a Hindu lodged a complaint about his Christian speech.
“Sometimes during conversations with Dr. Payne, religion or Bible verses are usually brought up by him in some way. This makes me and others very uncomfortable,” the student, Lacey Stewart, wrote in the informal complaint. “While in Scotland with CJA staff, Dr. Payne made the statement that anyone who is not a Christian is going to hell.”
“I have been told to go pray about certain issues when they are being discussed with Dr. Payne numerous times,” she continued. “I do not feel comfortable when told to go pray from my supervisor instead of dealing with the situation.”
Stewart asserted that Payne’s remarks, which he did not refute, were “disregarding to everyone’s feelings, especially knowing we have an international student of Hindu background involved in the conversation.”
But in email correspondence with university officials over the issue, Payne said that he did not believe his speech was inappropriate.
“[A]s a Christian, I am called to be an evangelical,” he wrote. “[B]y that I mean when I am asked about my faith, that I stand up for my faith and that I tell people about my faith, which is appropriate and not illegal.”
“I felt like I could tell my students from an evangelistic standpoint . . . that I would pray for them,” Payne also noted.
But on Friday, United States District Court Judge Keith Starrett, nominated by George W. Bush, said that professors like Payne aren’t immune from discipline when they promote religion in a public university.
“[W]hen public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline,” he wrote, quoting from the United States Supreme Court. “[T]he evidence demonstrates that all of the speech at issue took place pursuant to Plaintiff’s duties as a professor at the University. Therefore, the speech was not protected from employer discipline…”
Starrett also expressed his doubts as to whether Payne was truly disciplined because of his faith, since the decision to terminate his teaching contract was later rescinded.
But the judge noted that the university had agreed in its legal argument that Payne’s religious speech was not guaranteed protection.
“Defendants argue that the speech in question is not protected by the First Amendment because it was pursuant to Plaintiff’s
official duties as a professor,” he stated.
It is not yet known whether Payne plans to appeal the ruling.