Supreme Court allows firing for anti-gay remarks
Justices also reject appeals in foreclosure, parole cases
December 1, 1997
Web posted at: 2:03 p.m. EST (1903 GMT)
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court on Monday let stand a ruling that said the free speech rights of a San Francisco human rights commissioner were not violated when he was fired for anti-gay remarks.
In other decisions announced on Monday, the court rejected appeals from:
- A Wisconsin couple who lost their farm to foreclosure over $84 in overdue property taxes.
- Texas inmates who say their chances for parole shouldn't suffer if they have sued prison officials or if the victim of their crime opposes parole.
The justices rejected an appeal by the Rev. Eugene Lumpkin, the pastor of a Baptist church who was removed from San Francisco's Human Rights Commission in 1993 after he advocated violence against homosexuals.
While serving as commissioner, Lumpkin during news media interviews condemned homosexuality as a sin and quoted passages in the Bible he said prescribe death for practicing homosexuals.
"It's sad that people have AIDS and what have you, but it says right here in the scripture that the homosexual lifestyle is an abomination against God," Lumpkin was quoted as saying in a June 26, 1993 article in the San Francisco Chronicle.
After his firing, Lumpkin sued, alleging that his rights had been violated and seeking to be reinstated and to get compensatory damages.
In his Supreme Court appeal, Lumpkin argued that government employees may not be fired solely for public statements about their personal religious beliefs because, he said, "The right to religious belief and profession is absolute."
The high court denied his appeal without any comment or dissent.
The justices left intact a U.S. appeals court ruling that Lumpkin has a right to state his views, but that the First Amendment does not "assure him job security when he preached homophobia while serving as a city official."
Elmer and Helen Ritter appealed after losing their 35-acre farm in a dispute over $84 in overdue property taxes.
The Supreme Court, without comment, turned away the couple's argument that they weren't given adequate notice before foreclosure.
The Ritters, who owned a farm in Rock County, Wisconsin, were notified in 1985 that the county hadn't received their full property tax payment for 1984.
Mrs. Ritter said she had mailed the payment, and the Ritters continued paying taxes for the following years. In 1988, they were told they still owed $84.43 for 1984 and that the county "will be taking this property because of back taxes."
In July 1989, the county notified the Ritters that foreclosure proceedings were being started.
The Ritters did not respond, and ownership of the property was transferred to the county in October 1989, and the farm was sold for $17,345. The county kept the money.
A state judge ruled that the county gave proper notice of the foreclosure but that keeping the extra profit from the sale was unlawful. The judge awarded the Ritters $37,835, representing the farm's market value minus the $84 in unpaid taxes.
That victory for the Ritters was wiped out by a Wisconsin appeals court that ordered the lawsuit dismissed. The appeals court said the Ritters were given proper notice, and that counties can keep proceeds of foreclosure sales as long as they have given such notice.
The court, without comment, turned away an appeal by Texas inmates who argued they should not be penalized for exercising their right to sue prison officials. The inmates also said crime victims' letters to parole boards often include false information.
The class-action lawsuit, originally filed in 1985, sought an order barring parole officials from considering whether inmates filed lawsuits while in prison. Many prisoners are denied parole at least partly because they have filed legal claims over prison conditions, the inmates said.
The inmates also sought to bar parole officials from considering letters written by crime victims or their relatives' opposition to parole. Texas law requires parole boards to consider such "victim impact statements," which are not disclosed to the inmate.
A federal magistrate judge in Austin barred parole officials from considering crime victims' statements or inmates' activities in filing lawsuits.
The use of victim statements violates inmates' equal-protection rights because those who are the targets of such letters tend to be denied parole, the judge said in 1995. The judge also said bias against inmates considered overly litigious has harmed their access to the courts.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling, saying the policy allowing victim impact statements aims to protect victims' rights, and applies equally to all inmates.
It also said inmates who file frivolous lawsuits are not protected from retaliation by parole officials.
Senior Washington Correspondent Charles Bierbauer and Reuters contributed to this report.