A North Carolina man fired as a sheriff’s deputy after refusing to train a new female officer because of her gender alleges in a lawsuit he is a victim of religious discrimination.
Manuel Torres, an evangelical Christian and former Lee County sheriff’s deputy, asserts that his faith prohibits him from being alone with women who aren’t his wife ― which he said is exactly what would happen if he agreed to train a female deputy.
The 51-year-old is suing the Lee County’s Sheriff Office, claiming he was fired for asking to be exempt from training the woman.
The suit, filed in federal court in North Carolina on July 31, also names as defendants two other small towns Torres says subsequently denied him a job because of his religious beliefs about interacting with women. He seeks more than 300,000 in damages, as well as reinstatement by the sheriff’s office.
Torres, a Southern Baptist, is a deacon and regular attendee at East Sanford Baptist Church in Sanford. He believes that a tenet in the Bible prohibits married men from spending time alone with women who aren’t their wives, according to his lawsuit.
The belief is most often traced back to the late evangelist Billy Graham. The famous Southern Baptist preacher adopted the rule in the late 1940s as he spent extended periods of time on missionary trips away from his family. Following the guideline, according to Graham, helped him and his fellow evangelists avoid temptation or even the appearance of infidelity while on the road.
Becoming known as the “Billy Graham rule,” it was spotlighted in 2017 when Vice President Mike Pence’s adherence to the practice gained attention. And it was the subject of renewed focus earlier this summer when a Mississippi gubernatorial candidate, Robert Foster, cited the rule as the reason for not letting a female journalist shadow him on a campaign trip (he finished a distant third in his state’s Republican primary this week).
Widespread backlash to the rule has included the criticism that, when applied in professional and political contexts, it puts women at a disadvantage when they want to advance in their careers, especially in workplaces dominated by men.
Torres started working for the Lee County Sheriff’s Office in October 2012, his lawsuit states. A few years later, he was ordered to train a new female hire, but believed doing so would have left “the appearance of sinful conduct on his part,” since it required him to spend extended periods of time in isolated places with the woman in his patrol car.
He asked the sheriff’s office to exempt him from training the female deputy in July 2017, but his request was refused. At least one higher-up expressed “anger” at his repeated requests for accommodation, the lawsuit states.
Torres claims he was fired in September 2017 “because of his religious beliefs and because he continued to request a reasonable religious accommodation from a job duty that violated his sincerely held religious beliefs.”
The lawsuit claims two other police agencies ― the Siler City Police Department and the Apex Police Department ― decided not to hire Torres after the Lee County Sheriff’s Office informed them about his religious accommodation requests.
A lawyer for Siler City told HuffPost the town “denies discriminating against Mr. Torres in any way and will vigorously defend” itself against the suit. Apex town officials said they do not comment on pending litigation and the Lee County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately return requests for comment.