COLUMBIA — A former South Carolina state employee has filed a federal lawsuit over his termination earlier this year after a diversity training session, an action he says amounts to trampling his free speech rights.
The State newspaper reports that Mark Kelly, a 13-year veteran with the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, says he was fired after speaking up about faith and patriotism during diversity training in May.
“Mark Kelly is a man of faith and a man who has selflessly served his country for decades,” said Kelly’s lawyer, Benjamin Mabry. “Sadly, he and his formerly impeccable career have been destroyed.”
Kelly’s lawsuit alleges that at a May 3 diversity training session for department employees, the instructor said that when dealing with people from different cultures, “you should consider yourselves Americans second.” The complaint also says employees were told “you need to put your faith in the back seat” when communicating with people from different backgrounds.
Kelly’s former department licenses builders, doctors and other professionals, inspects elevators and amusement rides and audits employment records of small businesses required to ask new employees for proof of legal residency. Kelly was an investigator.
Kelly, a veteran of the U.S. Army National Guard with multiple overseas deployments, says he disagreed with the instructor on several points, asking “At what point are we allowed to acknowledge our own faith or country?”
On May 16, he was fired, according to a termination notice included with the complaint. The document says Kelly’s exchanges with the instructor during the training session called into question whether he can effectively work with people from different backgrounds.
“While the instructor welcomed exchange and dialogue among class participants, your comments made the majority of those attending the workshop uncomfortable,” the termination notice reads. “At times, your behavior was so boisterous it was disruptive to the learning environment.”
Catherine Templeton, the agency’s director, said she can’t discuss the specifics of Kelly’s termination. But she says the agency is committed to upholding laws that prohibit workplace discrimination and harassment.
Kelly’s lawsuit seeks reinstatement, back pay and up to $10 million in damages.