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Faith and Fairness

July 24, 2007

James W. Johnson has cleared the latest legal hurdle in a religious discrimination case involving his former employer, Broward Community College, in Florida. But the one-time instructor is still unsettled. He thinks his career has been unfairly damaged.

"I was educated to be a priest, but I found my niche in teaching religion," Johnson said in a phone interview Monday. "I would love to do that again. What makes me sick is the thought that I could never teach again because I decided to pursue this lawsuit. It seems to be preventing me from finding another [faculty] job."

Johnson, 45, spent more than a dozen years teaching religion courses as an adjunct at Broward. He applied for several full-time faculty jobs but was passed over, he said, because of his religious beliefs. Johnson is an openly gay Roman Catholic who earned a master's degree in divinity and graduated from a pontifical university in Rome. His lawsuit claims that Broward's religion department favored evangelical Protestants in hiring, promotion and class assignments.

“Every time there was an opening, I applied," he said. "I had expressed my interest in teaching full time, and I was more than qualified."

This spring, a jury found that the college used Johnson's religion as a "substantial motivating factor" in making course assignments. And earlier this month, a federal district court judge ruled that Johnson could recoup his legal fees.

A spokeswoman for Broward said that the community college district's trustees will meet to discuss their next step, and that college officials would not comment on the case while further litigation remains an option.

Johnson said his troubles began more than five years ago, when Winston Thompson became chair of the religion department. He said Thompson, whom he described as an evangelical Protestant, actively recruited and promoted faculty who shared his faith and who were ordained Protestant ministers. He also assigned them to teach scripture courses.

At the same time, Johnson said Thompson assigned him fewer classes, even though he had more teaching experience than many other instructors. And he said he was passed over for job openings because he is white. Thompson, who is black, hired several black instructors to fill vacancies, according to Johnson. Thompson did not return messages for comment.

While teaching a "New Testament" class in 2004, Johnson complained to college officials about the nature of a pair of textbooks that had been used. Saying that the books "actively promoted a Christian fundamentalist agenda," Johnson pointed to several passages, including one that states, "Some people suggest that those who never hear the gospel might still receive salvation if they respond to God's spiritual light in nature. But the bible gives no clear indication of any other way to salvation." (According to information provided by Johnson, the preface of one of the books says that the series is "written from an evangelical point of view.")

“It's a delicate issue to teach a bible course in a community college setting, and these books were blatantly promoting an agenda," he said. "I was dumbfounded."

Broward officials eventually banned the books, Johnson said. But he said officials didn't take action on his charges of discrimination. So he filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission and the Florida Commission on Human Relations regarding the hiring practices and class assignment decisions.

By the time Johnson filed a lawsuit, he was no longer working at Broward. Saying he had drawn student complaints and violated privacy laws by discussing a student's academic performance in class, the college didn't renew Johnson's contract. Johnson denies sharing any personal information, adding that he believes the college had looked for any excuse to get rid of him after he brought his discrimination claim.

Lawyers for the college said in a court document that the decision not to renew Johnson's contract was "within [college officials'] discretionary authority and was not intended to discriminate against [him] for any reason."

It wasn't the first time Johnson had lost a teaching job. Several years earlier, while working as an English as a Second Language instructor at a Florida teaching center, Johnson refused to sign an annual evaluation of his performance because he felt it was inaccurate. He said he received a unsatisfactory review because he raised questions about a practice at the center.

This March, the jury in the Broward case attached to its decision a note explaining its conclusions. "We find deplorable some of the practices being exercised at Broward Community College Central Campus, with regard to the selection of instructors and texts used in religion courses. We feel that BCC needs to immediately move towards correcting the religious bias that is clearly infecting some of its courses in the religion department and choose teaching materials that more appropriately represents a cross-section of the community. We feel there has been gross betrayal of the public trust.”

But the jury also found that Johnson was denied course assignments for reasons other than the consideration of his religion, so he was awarded no monetary damages. Both sides claimed victory. Ware Cornell, Johnson's lawyer, asked a U.S. District Court judge to issue a clarification, which he did earlier this month, saying that the college allowed Johnson's religion to play a "substantial or motivating factor" in making its course assignments.

“It’s a vindication, but yet at the same time, to me it’s mysterious," Johnson said. "The court seems to be saying, 'Yes, it's clear you were discriminated against. Thanks for letting us know, but you get nothing.' "

Johnson said he is considering further legal action, including pressing on the issue of what he considers his wrongful termination.

 

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