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On The Front Lines

Rutherford Institute Files Appeal on Behalf of New Jersey State Worker Fired for Sharing his Religious Beliefs

Attorneys Appeal to Third Circuit on Behalf of New Jersey Corrections Department Employee

--Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute filed an appeal yesterday to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of Peter Lightfoot, a former New Jersey Department of Corrections worker who was fired for sharing his religious beliefs with his coworkers.

On Feb. 17, 1999, Peter Lightfoot was hired by the New Jersey Department of Corrections as a "needle trade instructor" to train inmates at the South Woods facility to sew. Before taking the job, Lightfoot, who has a diploma in religion, had been ministering on a volunteer basis to the spiritual needs of inmates at South Woods. But during his employment with the state, Lightfoot was criticized for "proselytizing" to inmates when they attempted to ask him spiritual questions. Lightfoot was also reprimanded by his supervisor for using biblical terms in his normal manner of speech. His personal conversations during break time were interrupted because they involved religious topics, and he was refused appropriate training and guidance because of his religious beliefs. On Aug. 31, 1999, after Lightfoot objected to being disciplined for providing religious pamphlets to coworkers who had requested them, his employment with the Department of Corrections was terminated. In their appeal, Lightfoot's attorneys question whether a prison department may forbid a civilian employee from discussing religion with inmates or sharing religious information with fellow workers. In the original complaint filed in U.S. District Court for New Jersey, Lightfoot alleged the state had violated his rights to free exercise and free speech and was guilty of religious discrimination under federal and state codes. Judge Stephen F. Orlofsky granted summary judgment in favor of the New Jersey Department of Corrections earlier this year.

"Government agencies may not proclaim their workplaces 'religion free zones,'" said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. "State employees have the right to the free expression of their faith as protected by federal law and the First Amendment."

The Rutherford Institute is an international, nonprofit civil liberties organization committed to defending constitutional and human rights.

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