WARNER ROBINS -- A woman has filed a job discrimination lawsuit against a Warner Robins church, claiming she was wrongfully terminated after church officials told her she was living in sin, according to the complaint.
Jessica Atkinson, of Perry, claims she was discriminated against based on gender and religion when she was fired from her job as a nursery school coordinator at Friendship Baptist Church.
Atkinson said she lost her job after church officials questioned her relationship with her fiance, asked whether she was being a good Christian and told her to fix her personal situation, the complaint states. The lawsuit was filed Oct. 3 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia in Macon.
Pastor Paul Cowles declined to comment because the church has not yet been served the lawsuit or seen a copy of it, he said.
Atkinson filed discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in June after she received a letter on March 28 informing her that she had been fired from the church, where she had worked since 2007, according to court documents. The church had sent Atkinson a letter on March 22 asking her to resign because a personnel committee believed she was no longer fully supportive of Friendship Baptist Church, its leadership and ministries, according to the letter, which was included in court documents.
Atkinson claims that before she received those letters, she was called into a meeting, during which church officials questioned her relationship with her fiance, her sex life and why she was not married, according to the complaint. Atkinson informed church officials that she could not marry her fiance because she needed financial help to resolve legal issues with her ex-husband, the complaint states.
After asking Atkinson whether she was being a good Christian and what she planned to do about living in sin, a church official gave her the name of an attorney -- and later more legal contacts -- to help with her divorce proceedings, the complaint states. When the attorney was unwilling to assist her, Atkinson met again with the church official, telling him she felt she was being discriminated against based on religion, the complaint states.
Ms. Atkinson herself is a very devoted Christian and a believer in all of the churchs teachings, Atkinsons attorney, Paul Sharman, said.
In similar discrimination cases, churches have claimed ministerial exception, meaning a church employee who is considered a minister must adhere to the churchs beliefs. However, Sharman argues that Atkinson was not in a ministerial position at Friendship Baptist.
Shes a nursery school teacher. Shes not a pastor. Shes not ordained, he said. And, in her job description, its pretty clear that she is taking care of kids.
She was not told to live her personal life a certain way when she accepted the job, and it is not part of the written job description, Sharman said. Furthermore, Atkinson is not a member of the church, he said.
So they didnt require her to be a member of the church to work for them, Sharman said, but yet somehow they required her to conform to some unwritten rules about her personal life.
Additionally, Atkinson feels that her personal life was targeted because she is a woman, Sharman said.
Before she received the letter asking her to resign, Atkinson received two other letters from the church. One asked her to submit a letter to the churchs personnel committee, explaining how she would resolve her situation, the complaint states. Another letter accused Atkinson of posting information about the dispute on Facebook, though Atkinson claims she only wrote vague messages about ongoing issues and posted biblical verses, the complaint states.
Atkinson, who has three young children, has suffered financially since losing her job, Sharman said, and is seeking damages for mental and emotional suffering and punitive damages. The EEOC places a cap on the amount of damages a person can receive based on the number of employees -- if the defendant has 15 to 60 employees, the complainant can get up to $50,000 in damages, Sharman said.
Additionally, Atkinson is seeking pay for back wages and attorneys fees, Sharman said.
One of the biggest things she wants is declaration from the courts that (the church has) in fact violated her rights, and you cant treat people this way, he said. She doesnt want someone else to deal with that, and she feels like there needs to be a lesson learned here by the church.
To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.