By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
A former Lewis County employee is suing the county for $3 million saying he was discriminated against because of his religion.
Geoff Nelson was a detention officer in the juvenile court division until he was fired a little more than a year ago for what his superiors said was insubordination. He had worked there about four and a half years.
Nelson and his attorney contend he was ordered not to bring a Bible to work, “harassed” for being Christian and treated differently repeatedly because of his beliefs.
“As a matter of fact, they threatened him about reading a Bible at work from the time he started working there,” his attorney Mark Knapp said.
The suit is filed in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.
Nelson, who is now 28 and lives in Rochester, is looking forward to taking the case to trial, something he says is scheduled for this coming December.
“I’m actually excited to go to court, and not just for the money, I want to get things made right,” Nelson said. “You can’t treat people different just because their religious views are different than yours or their beliefs are different.”
The county, through its attorney, denies the allegations.
Holly Spanski, the administrator of the Lewis County Juvenile Court division, said it’s an ongoing case and she can’t comment.
“The only thing I can speak about, about the allegations he’s making, is I would invite you to visit,” Spanski said earlier this week. “You would find Bibles and other religious materials here for anyone to read.”
The Lewis County Juvenile Court division in Chehalis consists of a courtroom and a 24-bed detention facility, as well as services for probation and other kinds of cases involving youth like dependency petitions and truancy issues.
About a dozen of its 28 employees are detention officers.
Nelson, according to documents provided by the county’s lawyer, was hired in November 2006 with no previous experience in the corrections field; but he graduated at the top of his class at the Juvenile Corrections Officer Academy.
The conflict came to a head in mid-January of last year, during a night shift in the detention center, according to both sides.
The workplace is described with televisions in various locations, including in the control room and in a day room shared by incarcerated juveniles and the detention officers, as well as allowances for casual reading by workers during down time.
Attorney Knapp says Nelson ought to have been able to read his Bible the same way other workers might read magazines about Hollywood stars or fishing.
Knapp said on one particular night, his client and another detention officer were watching religious DVDs when the lead individual on the three-person crew ordered them to turn it off.
“Jeff gets called in to talk with his boss, his boss is really hot under the collar and actually confiscated the DVDs, ” Knapp said.
The document from an arbitration hearing that came several months later indicates Nelson disagreed about the lead person’s directive, and subsequently told his supervisor Chuck West to put in writing an order to stop watching religious material at work.
The document also includes the following:
A memo then went out saying no television watching in the control room and television watching by employees could be done after 10 p.m. when the detainees were locked down.
West wrote to Nelson and co-worker Chevalo Duckett their DVDs should only be viewed in a private area because a co-worker found them offensive.
The document from arbitration also describes the disagreement over the television as occurring over two shifts and starting with the lead worker telling Nelson to turn off an NFL playoff game in the control room early one evening and Nelson turning it back on after the lead, Robin Hood, turned it off.
Nelson and Duckett both told Hood it had been allowed before 10 p.m. until then, during the previous year when Duckett was the supervisor during the shift.
Duckett’s supervisor position had since been cut and the two of them had not before worked with Hood as the lead.
Nelson was suspended, and then fired on Feb. 18 of last year.
The reason for his termination, according to the arbitration document, was his insubordinate and defiant attitude toward Hood, West and Spanski.
Nelson had been suspended less than three years earlier for “engaging in open Bible study on the work floor” while on duty after being warned not to, according to the arbitration document. He had also been talked to by Spanski about an allegation he was quoting scripture to detainees.
Attorney Knapp characterized the investigations as harassment and as ongoing since the time his client was hired.
“It’s a pattern of people bringing up religious subjects and discussions and (then) reporting Geoff for some type of ‘proselytizing’,” Knapp said.
Both Duckett and Nelson filed grievances through their union and complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Knapp also represented Duckett, who was not fired.
Nelson lost a hearing trying to become eligible for unemployment compensation, and he lost the arbitration between his union and employer.
He closed the EEOC case so he could file the suit in federal court, he said.
John Justice, the Tumwater attorney representing the county, said he thinks the arbitrator’s ruling upholding the termination substantiates that it was proper.
Justice said sharing the documents was the best he could do in the way of commenting on the lawsuit.
Knapp says the various hearings looked at the issues too narrowly.
“They really were very rough-shod in the way they treated him,” Knapp said.
Nelson, a father of four who has yet to find work, isn’t deterred.
He made the decision to sue the day Spanski fired him, he said. The troubles had been ongoing since early 2007, he said.
He wants to makes things right, not just for himself, but for others, he said.
He’s just a Bible-believing Christian, not someone who “went around Bible thumping,” he said.
“If that was the case, I wouldn’t be fighting it,” he said.
The case was filed October 24. It is labeled 3:11-cv-05876-RJB Nelson v. Lewis County, Washington