As part of her job as a health educator, Palma taught a family planning class three times a month. 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 in June, after a change in management, she said she was told she had to begin teaching patients about contraceptives and was also ordered to attend mandatory training at a Planned Parenthood location.
Palma said she refused to do so, saying in the EEOC complaint that birth control “disrupts the natural beauty of how God designed our bodies to work.”
“My Catholic faith teaches me that contraception is wrong,” Palma told The Washington Post. “I cannot teach a class that violates my religious beliefs. I will always put my faith first.”
Palma said she was told she was fired after raising concerns during a meeting in late June. She left the company in early July and is now being represented by First Liberty Institute, which advocates on behalf of religious freedoms.
In a statement, Legacy Community Health spokesman Kevin Nix said “we dispute the allegations made in the EEOC filing by Karen Palma and are reviewing her personnel file.”
“Legacy’s mission is to serve the health care needs of our community, regardless of a patient’s ability to pay and without judgment,” the statement said. “We also respect and value diversity in our staff, which extends to matters of faith.”
Amy Leonard, vice president of public health services, said in a June 29 email to Palma that “sometimes employees may need to put aside their own personal beliefs or views to meet the job requirements.” Palma’s job responsibilities, Leonard wrote, included not just playing a video, but also openly discussing family planning practices with patients.
Diana Dean, Legacy’s vice president of human resources, said in an email sent the next day that since Palma wasn’t comfortable meeting her job expectations, she could no longer continue to work as an educator for the organization.
“We respect your choices and as such we want to assist you in transitioning to another position in or outside of Legacy,” Dean wrote, adding later: “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 termination had nothing to do with her job performance.
Citing a recent Supreme Court ruling, he said an employer can’t discriminate against someone based on that person’s religious beliefs.
In 2015, the court held that Abercrombie & Fitch could not refuse to hire an applicant if the reason was to avoid accommodating a religious practice. The clothing company was sued for not hiring a Muslim teenager who was wearing a hijab. Abercrombie claimed the company does not allow head coverings.
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the June 2015 ruling that an employer “may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions.”
Scalia added that “an employer who acts with the motive of avoiding accommodation” may violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act “even if he has no more than an unsubstantiated suspicion that accommodation would be needed.”
Employees, Dys said, shouldn’t be “put to the choice of choosing between their faith and their job.” The law, he said, requires employers to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs, as long as doing so doesn’t pose undue hardship on a company or organization.
In Palma’s case, she asked her employer to continue a “very simple” accommodation that wouldn’t impact the company or the vast majority of her duties, Dys said.
Palma said another employee had volunteered to substitute for her so that she wouldn’t have to discuss contraceptives with patients, but new management refused to work with her in figuring out other alternative accommodations, she said.
“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.
The 32-year-old said her deep-seated faith grew out of her childhood. Born in Guatemala, she was raised by her grandparents after her mother left her there when she was only six months old. When she was 5, Palma’s mother brought her to the United States. She lived in Indiana with her mother and stepfather.
“From the age of 5 until I was 15 years old, I suffered both verbal and physical abuse from my mother,” she wrote in the complaint. “This was one of the most difficult times in my life, and it was bearable only because I was introduced to Catholicism.”
As a teen, she thought of suicide, she said; but her faith kept her from killing herself.
Eventually, she returned to Guatemala, where she lived with her biological father. A U.S. citizen, she was able to come back to the country at age 20.
In 2012, she graduated from the University of Houston with a bachelor’s degree in health promotion. She worked as a patient care technician for the Harris County Hospital District for six years before getting a job as a health promotion coordinator at Legacy in 2013.
She was later promoted and became a health educator, working with patients with chronic illnesses. She taught classes on different topics, including diabetes, high blood pressure, breast-feeding and general nutrition.
Palma said she now works as a health educator at a wellness center in Houston.