A former Texas health worker claims she was fired after refusing to teach birth control because, as a devout Catholic, it violates her religious beliefs.
Karen Alexia Palma, 32, immigrated from Guatemala to the U.S. when she was only five years old and, according to her, it was her faith — the very thing she’s now fighting for — that enabled her to thrive.
“From the age of five until I was 15 years old, I suffered both verbal and physical abuse from my mother,” she said. “This was one of the most difficult times in my life, and it was bearable only because I was introduced to Catholicism.”
On Wednesday, Palma filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against her former employer, Legacy Community Health of Houston, six months after being dismissed from her job.
Palma, as a part-time health educator, was required to teach family planning classes three times per month and, at first, the company was accommodating, according to the Washington Post:
For a year and a half, she said, Legacy Community Health had been willing to accommodate her religious beliefs by allowing her to play a 20-minute video about birth control instead of personally talking about it with patients. A registered nurse also was on-site to answer questions patients might have about contraceptives, she said.
“The religious accommodation was very small and it did not increase the work of other employees at Legacy, nor did it cause hardship upon my employer,” Palma said in documents. “Moreover, it did not affect the vast majority of what I did as health educator.”
But when management changed in June, so did the approach. Palma told the Post she was immediately told she had to begin teaching about contraceptives and was even forced to attend training sessions at a nearby Planned Parenthood facility.
Palma, whose faith helped her battle thoughts of suicide as a teenager, refused, arguing in her complaint against her ex-employer that birth control “disrupts the natural beauty of how God designed our bodies to work.”
“My Catholic faith teaches me that contraception is wrong,” she added in a comment to the Post. “I cannot teach a class that violates my religious beliefs. I will always put my faith first.”
Of course, Legacy disputes all of Palma’s claims, according to a statement from company spokesman Kevin Nix.
“Legacy’s mission is to serve the health care needs of our community, regardless of a patient’s ability to pay and without judgment,” he said. “We also respect and value diversity in our staff, which extends to matters of faith.”
Palma officially left Legacy in early July and is now being represented by the religious liberty advocacy group First Liberty Institute.
In a June 29 email, Amy Leonard, vice president of public health services, told Palma “sometimes employees may need to put aside their own personal beliefs or views to meet the job requirements,” adding that her responsibilities include more than just playing a video. Her job also requires open dialogue about family planning, Leonard wrote.
And, if Palma couldn’t meet those job requirements, Legacy’s human resources vice president said, then the post just wasn’t the right fit.
“We respect your choices and as such we want to assist you in transitioning to another position in or outside of Legacy,” Diana Dean wrote in an email to Palma. “We value the work that you have done teaching other health education topics and we hope that assisting you in this way will enable you to make a positive transition.”
Jeremy Dys, senior counsel at First Liberty Institute, said Palma’s firing had nothing to do with her job performance, but was instead an attack on her religious freedom, which he argued — citing a recent Supreme Court decision — is a violation of his client’s constitutional rights.
The high court determined in 2015 that Abercrombie & Fitch could not refuse hiring a potential employee in order to avoid accommodating that person’s religious beliefs and practices. In that particular instance, the clothing line, which does not allow head coverings, was sued for not hiring a Muslim teenager.
The late Justice Antonin Scalia laid out an explanation for the ruling in the June 2015 decision:
An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a fac- tor in employment decisions. Title VII contains no knowledge re- quirement. Furthermore, Title VII’s definition of religion clearly indicates that failure-to-accommodate challenges can be brought as disparate-treatment claims. And Title VII gives favored treatment to religious practices, rather than demanding that religious practices be treated no worse than other practices.
“I hope Legacy can see that what they did was wrong and never ask anybody else to violate their religious beliefs or their faith,” Palma told the Post.
Palma said she had already found a substitute who would discuss contraceptives so she wouldn’t have to do so. The ex-health worker was asking for a “very simple” accommodation, Dys argued, that would not impact the company leadership or her routine.
But, apparently, her former employers didn’t see it the same way. Today, Palma said she works as a health educator at Houston-area wellness center.