In 2014 Dr. Eric Walsh was asked to give the commencement address at California’s Pasadena City College graduation ceremony. The firestorm this seemingly insignificant event set off has reached the national stage, stirring up heated questions about religious freedom, hiring policies and homosexuality. What started in California has now made it’s way to Georgia where Walsh is involved in a lawsuit with the state government over a wrongful termination suit, and Walsh’s lawyer is saying the case is “probably the most invasive reach into the pulpit by the state that I’ve ever seen.”
As you can tell, there’s a lot going on here.
To understand what is currently happening involves tracing a circuitous, controversial series of events that started back in Pasadena. When Walsh was announced as the commencement speaker at PCC he was not only the city of Pasadena’s public health director but also an occasional speaker for Foursquare churches in the area. It wasn’t long before audio and transcripts of Walsh’s talks circulated and many of his more controversial statements became public.
An article in the Los Angeles Times documented several of these comments including him calling Disney “a dark force,” saying that when you wish upon a star “who are you really wishing too? Demonic forces.” He said of the superhero Batman “The Dark Knight is supposed to be the hero, but he really represents Satan.” He also said the Harry Potter franchise promotes witchcraft and that Catholics are idolaters and that evolution is “a religion created by Satan.”
But it was Walsh’s statements on sexuality that led to him being boycotted by local LGBT groups. Walsh said that the psychiatrists and psychologists who removed homosexuality and transexuality as a mental illness from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) were “raised up by the (devil).”
Up to the point of the PCC commencement controversy Walsh had been a highly thought of figure in the field of public health. He had served for both President Bush and Obama fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS, served as a board member of the Latino Health Collaborative, and started California’s first city-run dental clinic for low-income families. Walsh had been offered a role as the Georgia state health director and was preparing to move his family across the country when news of the Pasadena controversy reached Georgia state officials.
And that’s when the real controversy begins. Allegedly Georgia state officials put Walsh’s appointment on hold as employees were ordered to comb through Walsh’s publicly posted sermons. Shortly thereafter Walsh was told his job offer had been rescinded, saying it was because of a failure to disclose additional income in the state of California. Walsh in turn sued the state of Georgia alleging they violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which says it’s illegal to make employment decisions based on someone’s religious beliefs.
In response to Walsh’s suit the government subpoenaed all Walsh’s sermon transcripts, giving him 33 days to comply. Walsh’s refusal to do so attracted the attention of conservative lobbying group the Family Research Council who started a petition that reads in part that the government demanding Walsh’s sermons “have the effect of intimidating and silencing people of faith everywhere.”
On one hand FRC and Walsh’s lawyer have overstated their case. It’s unclear if subpoenaing sermons is an invasion of church sovereignty since they are by definition public acts. Furthermore by suing the Georgia state government Walsh has opened himself up to a full disclosure as the government mounts a case to defend itself in court.
However it seems almost certain that Georgia state officials did violate the law in overtly telling employees to consider a candidate’s religious views in a hiring process. For those concerned about a growing political threat to religious freedom of speech, Walsh’s is one step closer to pastors being told what they can and can’t preach from the pulpit. It’s also fair to ask if as a pastor Walsh is given a free reign to say anything he wants with zero effect on future employment, especially for a public office. For instance, if Walsh had used the Bible to defend racism or genocide would that still fall under “religious freedom.”
This leads to the bigger concern that all pastors and people of faith should keep a close eye on. As the United States becomes more religiously, ethnically and socially diverse, what religious free speech means will become more complicated and—if handled poorly—more oppressive.
Whatever you make of Walsh, what he represents matters deeply for the future of our country.