July 15, 2002
Jehovah's Witness Won't Be a State Trooper
Appeals court rejects man's claim that State Patrol Wouldn't Accommodate Faith
by Scott Sunde, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Gregory Lawson wanted to be a state trooper and to be true to his religion. But he couldn't do both in Washington state, and a federal appeals court ruled yesterday that there is nothing wrong with that.
Lawson, a Jehovah's Witness and a State Patrol cadet, decided his faith would not allow him to salute the flag nor would it permit him to swear allegiance as part of the trooper's oath. The State Patrol, he said, would not accommodate his religious beliefs, as schools and courts have for those of the Jehovah's Witness faith, atheists and others.
So he resigned in the first week of a six-month session at the State Patrol academy in 1998, deciding he could ultimately face expulsion anyway if he refused to take the oath or salute the flag.
He later sued, claiming religious discrimination. A federal judge in Tacoma summarily dismissed his lawsuit, saying Lawson didn't have enough evidence to take his case to a jury.
Yesterday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the Tacoma judge. In effect, two appellate judges ruled yesterday that Lawson's resignation wasn't forced, even though to stay in the academy meant he'd have to do things his conscience would not accept.
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.
Lawson's attorneys say he wanted to stay in the academy, and he even suggested that he could stand silently by as other cadets saluted the flag. But they believe that refusal to salute the flag or swear allegiance to the United States is unpopular in a time that flags wave from front porches and patriotism runs high.
"This climate of the war on terrorism is affecting civil liberties," said Shawn Newman, one of the attorneys. "It's history repeating itself." During World War II, students who were Jehovah's Witnesses got in trouble in school when they refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately backed the students.
Courts also accommodate other faiths. Witnesses about to testify, for example, are asked to either "swear or affirm," said Hugh McGavick, Lawson's other attorney.
His lawyers say they may continue to pursue the case. It took the appeals court eight months to announce a decision, and one judge issued a sharply worded dissent.
Judge Betty Fletcher wrote in her dissent that the majority opinion defied logic and the law. She said 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."
Lawson, a Shelton resident, now works in the construction industry. He could not be reached for comment yesterday.
A top lawyer with the state said the patrol would have accommodated Lawson. Carol Smith-Merkulov, a senior counsel in the Attorney General's Office, said the patrol has accommodated troopers of varying faiths, including Buddhists and Mormons. She said she didn't know if any troopers are Jehovah's Witnesses.
She also disputed Lawson's versions of events that a counselor in the academy and a patrol captain told him that they could not accommodate his religious beliefs.
Law enforcement is an unusual occupation for Jehovah's Witnesses. The faith discourages, though does not prohibit, the carrying of weapons, McGavick said. Lawson joined the academy in July 1998. For two days, he took part in formations and saluted the flag. But he was troubled. He believes his faith forbids him from saluting any state or nation. What's more, his faith allows him to swear allegiance only to God.
As they are commissioned, troopers swear allegiance to the United States and the state of Washington.
Judges Thomas Reavley and Richard Tallman acknowledged that Lawson faced a conflict between his religious beliefs and his job.
But to have enough evidence to go to trial Lawson would have to show that he resigned because conditions at the academy had become so intolerable he had no other choice, they said.
"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.
The denomination was founded in Pittsburgh in 1872. Jehovah's Witnesses believe they adhere to the oldest religion on Earth, the worship of the Almighty God revealed in the Bible as Jehovah. They regard civil authority as necessary and obey it "as long as it does not contradict God's law."