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A court will decide if a sheriff’s deputy can be fired for refusing to work alone with a woman

The Rev. Billy Graham died on Feb. 21, 2018, at age 99. The Post's Michelle Boorstein reflects on how Graham transformed American Christianity. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

A former sheriff’s deputy has filed a lawsuit alleging he was fired over objections to training a female employee alone, elevating a practice named after the late evangelical pastor Billy Graham from a cultural battle to a legal one.

Manuel Torres, 51, said he told the Lee County Sheriff’s Office in North Carolina that he could not be alone with the female deputy in his patrol car, because it would violate his religious beliefs.

Torres “holds the strong and sincere religious belief that the Holy Bible prohibits him, as a married man, from being alone for extended periods with a female who is not his wife,” says the federal lawsuit, which may be the first of its kind. Grant Wacker, a professor at Duke Divinity School and the author of “America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation,” told The Washington Post he was unaware of other court cases related to the “Billy Graham Rule.”

The decision to avoid one-on-one time with a woman is commonly attributed to the influential pastor’s policy of never traveling, eating or meeting alone with a woman other than his wife. Some evangelical pastors and others have emulated Graham’s approach in an effort to avoid the temptation to cheat on their wives and to ensure no one wrongly suspects any untoward behavior.

The Billy Graham Rule has been scrutinized in recent years after Vice President Pence’s policy of not eating alone with women other than his wife came under a spotlight. Pence also avoids attending events that include alcohol without his wife, Karen Pence. A candidate for Mississippi governor, state Rep. Robert Foster (R), drew criticism in July when he said his adherence to the rule prevented him from letting a female reporter shadow him.

To some, the Billy Graham Rule is a noble way for men to protect their marriages from infidelity or even the false suspicion of it. In the eyes of others, the guidelines exclude women from important conversations about work and career advancement.

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Torres says in his lawsuit, first reported by the Charlotte Observer, that he joined the Lee County Sheriff’s Office in 2012 and serves as a deacon at East Sanford Baptist Church in Sanford, N.C. His superiors at the sheriff’s office at some point ordered him to train a woman, which Torres writes in the lawsuit would create “the appearance of sinful conduct” because it would require him to be alone with her in his patrol car.

Torres alleges that in July 2017 he asked a sergeant for a religious accommodation that was alternately granted and denied. When Torres complained about the decision to two lieutenants, he claims the sergeant retaliated by ignoring Torres’s call for backup while responding to a car crash.

That September, the chief deputy told Torres he was angry about Torres’s request for a religious accommodation, according to the suit. The chief allegedly fired Torres without explanation days later.

Torres also claims the towns of Siler City and Apex passed him over for a job because the sheriff’s office gave them falsely negative referrals. He has filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the sheriff’s office and both towns, according to the lawsuit.

The town manager for Apex, Drew Havens, declined to comment on the lawsuit. Jennifer Gamble, a deputy county attorney for Lee County, said Torres’s allegations are under review. Representatives of Siler City did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The practice that has come to be known as the Billy Graham Rule is one of four rules the influential pastor developed in the late 1940s to maintain the integrity of his ministry, Wacker said. The other rules dealt with money, cooperation and truthfulness in advertising.

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Graham considered his rule about sexual morality to be a common-sense guideline that acknowledged his vulnerability and that of his associates, Wacker said.

“They were young men in the prime of life, away from home for long stretches of time,” he said. “It was a rule that effectively said it’s a really bad idea to have a candlelight dinner with a woman when your wife is in North Carolina.”

Reporters and Christian organizations, Wacker said, seized on this rule and extended it beyond Graham’s intentions. People talked about refusing to be alone in an elevator with a woman or denying a public conversation with a female employee. Graham’s purpose, Wacker said, had been to follow a common-sense policy governing his behavior in his wife’s absence.

Evangelical Christians still frequently invoke the Billy Graham Rule, Wacker said, although he said most follow it only when it’s convenient. He said controversy over the philosophy has raised two criticisms — that it assumes women are predatory and that it discriminates against women. Wacker said Graham did not think of women as predatory, but it may be true that as applied today, his rule about sexual morality excludes women from power.

The lawsuit by the former sheriff’s officer, Wacker said, pits religious rights against freedom from discrimination in a common type of public battle.

“I would think that this is going to be legally very complicated,” he said.

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