The Austin Chronicle

Separation of Church and Taser

By Jordan Smith, September 18, 2009, News

After nearly three years of legal wrangling, it appears the city of Austin will have to go to court to defend the actions of Austin Police Department employees involved in the 2006 termination of rookie Officer Ramon Perez. In January 2005, Perez was still on probation (and thus not covered by civil service law) when he refused an order to Taser a man who looked like a heart-attack candidate – a factor officers are to consider when deciding whether to use the electroshock weapon.

Perez was shortly thereafter transferred to a night shift; two months later, he was ordered to see APD psychologist Carol Logan. Perez was told the meeting was geared toward helping improve communication with his supervisors – as it turned out, he was being evaluated in a fit-for-duty review, a review he ultimately failed, according to Logan, because of his religious beliefs as a nondenominational fundamentalist Christian. Perez's moral and religious beliefs, said Logan, were so strong as to be an "impairment." Perez was ultimately given a choice: be terminated and lose his peace officer license or resign and keep the ability to work elsewhere. Perez chose the latter option and sued, saying that his firing was motivated by religious discrimination.

Hoping to have the whole affair dismissed, the city sought summary judgment in the case and prevailed on several points – having itself dismissed as a named plaintiff, for example, and on the notion that Perez was fired for refusing to violate the constitutional right of the man he failed to shock. But the city lost on the key question of whether Perez was discriminated against based on his religious beliefs. The city then appealed the decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals – and lost. The court wrote that there remains a "genuine issue of fact": whether Perez's termination was motivated by religious bias.

The case now heads back to district court where, presumably, a trial date will be set – unless, of course, the city decides to cut its losses and settle.

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