SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court yesterday dismissed a First Amendment lawsuit by a Tehama County employee, a self-described evangelical Christian who said he had a right to practice and preach his beliefs in the workplace.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, upholding a lower court judge and Tehama County authorities, said the man, a Department of Social Services employment counselor, did not have the right to hold prayer sessions in the agency's conference room.
The unanimous three-judge panel also rejected claims by Daniel Berry that he had a constitutional right to display a Spanish-language Bible and a sign that said "Happy Birthday Jesus" in his cubicle, which was constantly frequented by county clients. Berry also maintained he could preach to his clients.
The San Francisco-based appeals court said in Berry v. Tehama County that the county walked a fine line to protect the right of religion and to keep the government from appearing to support religion.
The county allowed employees to discuss religion with other employees, but not with government clients. County employees also could display religious paraphernalia at work stations as long as the public did not conduct business in that cubicle, the court noted.
The appeals court also said employees could pray in the break room, but the county was correct in not allowing a conference room to become a social gathering place where Berry could lead prayers.
The court said the county successfully navigated "a course between infringing on employees' rights to the free exercise of their religions under the First Amendment and violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by appearing to endorse their employees' religious expressions."