Court upholds decision to dismiss Jehovah's Witness lawsuit

The Associated Press/July 15, 2002

Seattle -- A panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a federal judge's decision to dismiss a lawsuit by a Jehovah's Witness who quit the Washington State Patrol academy because he believed he would have to take an oath of allegiance and salute the flag.

Gregory Lawson, a Jehovah's Witness and a State Patrol cadet, says his faith would not allow him to salute the flag nor swear allegiance to the United States and State of Washington as part of the trooper's oath.

He believed the patrol would not accommodate his religious beliefs, so he resigned in the first week of a six-month session at the academy in 1998, deciding he could ultimately face expulsion if he refused to take the oath or salute the flag.

Lawson, a Shelton resident, later sued, claiming religious discrimination. A federal judge in Tacoma dismissed the lawsuit, saying Lawson didn't have enough evidence to take his case to a jury.

Lawson's attorneys say he wanted to stay in the academy, and he had suggested he could stand silently by as other cadets saluted the flag.

Carol Smith-Merkulov, a senior counsel in the Attorney General's Office, said the patrol has accommodated troopers of many faiths.

She said she didn't know if any troopers are Jehovah's Witnesses, but that the patrol would have accommodated Lawson, too.

She disputed Lawson's contention that a counselor in the academy and a patrol captain told him they could not accommodate his religious beliefs.

Appeals Court Judges Thomas Reavley and Richard Tallman acknowledged that Lawson faced a conflict between his religious beliefs and his job. But they said that to have enough evidence to go to trial Lawson would have to show he resigned because conditions at the academy were so intolerable he had no other choice.

"Lawson provides no support for the assertion that his right to freely exercise his religion was violated after he voluntarily resigned from the WSP's employ," Tallman wrote in the majority opinion.

In her dissent, Judge Betty Fletcher wrote that Lawson could establish a case of religious discrimination.

"This is a case about the fundamental right to religious freedom. It is a story of a conscientious young man who aspires to a career in law enforcement; a young man who is also profoundly religious," Fletcher wrote. "The only barrier to service in the State Patrol is the WSP's failure to accommodate his religion."

Different judges of the same appellate court ruled last month that public-school students could not legally recite the Pledge of Allegiance because of the words "under God," a decision that sparked nationwide controversy.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.