Austin Fire Chaplain Sues After Getting Fired Over Trans Athletes Blog Post

Dismissed last year for writing a blog post critical of the participation of transgender athletes in women's sports, an Assemblies of God minister is now suing the city of Austin, Texas.

The Rev. Andrew Fox, 54, who was a volunteer fire department chaplain from 2013 to 2021, accuses the city of violating his free speech and religious rights over a comment on his blog. He is seeking reinstatement, damages and legal fees as well as a promise from Austin not to take actions against private citizens expressing "constitutionally protected messages" related to concerns over gender-identity and women's sports.

Fox's suit has opened another battle in America's culture wars between conservatives who say they face unfair discrimination for voicing traditional views rooted in their religion and those who say expressing such views can amount to offensive prejudice and harassment against LGBTQ people or other minorities.

The city of Austin has not commented on the lawsuit. Spokesman Andy Tate said only that the city will defend itself in court. For nine years in a row, Austin has received top scores from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and Equality Federation for its inclusive policies.

U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, a Texas Republican, released a statement calling the termination "wrong, cowardly, and likely unconstitutional. The city of Austin is effectively leading a leftist inquisition to bar Christians — or anyone with the sincere and simple belief that boys aren't girls — from serving the City."

Rob Boston, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said "to avoid problems like this going forward, Austin officials should take the decisive step of abolishing chaplains in all its public safety services."

Noting that Austin has more than 800 houses of worship, Boston said spiritual solace is best found outside the workplace. "In this case, the chaplain said hateful and hurtful things about members of a community that, as part of his duties, he is expected to serve. He got called on it and now is claiming he's the victim."

It all started on July 16, 2021, when, just before the most recent Olympic Games, Fox wrote on his blog that "the issue is about gender identity and how ridiculous it is becoming."

City of Austin fire department
Firefighters from the Austin Fire Department take part in a 911 memorial at which chaplains such as the Rev. Andrew Fox typically offered prayers. © Austin Fire Department

"What is coming out of Willy Woke and the Chocolate Factory is the lunacy of men competing with women as women. The transgender ideology is blatantly hijacking the platform of athletic sport under the guise of inclusivism," he wrote.

Fox says he was called into a meeting with department officials on Aug. 30 and told that his post was offensive and that LGBTQ people were not happy with it. One of the LGBTQ representatives was a firefighter, he said.

"I met with the firefighter asking what offended, and no one could answer that question," he said in an interview.

Little came from further meetings with the representative, said Fox, and the lawsuit states that the representative, Miriam Xochitl Chafino, didn't respond to his repeated questions on what made his posts offensive.

Chafino declined to comment to Newsweek.

Nevertheless, on Oct. 15, the fire chief requested that Fox write an apology letter. Fox expressed regret that some LGBTQ members of the department were offended, but refused to recant his belief that there are two sexes created by God that are immutable.

The department officials then presented Fox with a stack of comments on the blog post from anonymous writers accusing him of bias against transgender people and women. Fox said he wasn't told whether his accusers were affiliated with the department.

On Dec. 9, Fox heard there was a chaplains' meeting to which he had not been invited.

"The chief called and said I was dismissed and not welcome at the meeting," he said. "The next day I received a concise email of huge accusations of my not providing for the whole department the pastoral and spiritual care they needed. But there had been no complaints for the past eight years."

Fox says that conservatives like him are vanishing in public settings, where perceived criticism of transgender issues can be seen as violating Title VII protections. In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court said Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay and transgender people from workplace discrimination. If the city had kept Fox on as chaplain, it could be seen as tolerating discrimination.

"Under the City's standard, no one who openly holds historic Christian beliefs about the immutable differences between men and women can serve as a chaplain or in any other fire department position," reads Fox's lawsuit, filed in federal court in Austin. "And that should concern everyone no matter their views."

The lawsuit is one of at least three in the past 10 years after the Christian beliefs or practices of the members of secular fire departments ran afoul of policies.

Fire Chief Ron Hittle was suspended in Stockton, California, then fired in 2011 for attending a Christian leadership training conference - along with three other employees - on city time. The case is still being litigated.

Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran was ousted in 2015 for writing a book that criticized homosexuality as a sexual perversion based on his reading of the Bible. After he was told that his book "Who Told You that You are Naked?" was anti-gay and fired, he sued the city. The latter negotiated a settlement in 2018, paying Cochran and his lawyers $1.2 million.

In support of Cochran, the Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., wrote in an essay for Religion News Service that Cochran's religious beliefs were the real issue.

"This is the new demand of modernity: Surrender to the moral revolution or keep your mouth shut," Mohler wrote. "Believing what the Christian church has held for two millennia (and most Christians around the world still believe) is now a disqualification from public office."

Fox, who is being represented in his suit against Austin by the Scottsdale-based Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), said he had a record of "integrity and excellence" in his eight years with the fire department and he had treated all firefighters equally regardless of their gender. In the months before he was fired, he said he had begun meeting with other church leaders to figure out ways to better include the LGBTQ community in its mission.

Formerly a police chaplain in Kennewick, Washington, Fox said he came highly recommended when he moved to Texas in 2012. The fire department brought him on to develop a chaplaincy program for more than 1,200 uniformed and civilian personnel and their families.

The Rev. Andrew Fox
The Rev. Andrew Fox, an Assemblies of God pastor and the former lead chaplain of the Austin fire department, is suing the city of Austin for dismissing him over his writings in his private blog. Alliance Defending Freedom

He performed services, attended funerals and offered counseling to whomever asked. As the years progressed, he received official commendations for his work, according to the lawsuit, and the department was looking into whether it could make his position a salaried one.

Meanwhile, he was blogging about theological and cultural issues on his website. He says he didn't promote his blog on the job.

"It is my First Amendment right to articulate my ideas and there's not a singular link between my blog and my work," he said.

Alan J. Reinach, executive director for the Church State Council, a group affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventists, said the Fox case is one of a growing number involving religious employees of secular organizations.

"There is an anti-Christian view of marriage and sexuality going on where the public expression of traditional views meets with a lot of hostility," he said in an interview. "The big culture war conflict after the one on abortion is on sexuality and marriage. It is the conflict between LGBT rights and religion. There are constant skirmishes."

Alan Brownstein, a retired constitutional law scholar formerly at the University of California/Davis, said the Supreme Court's recent ruling on Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, where a football coach, Joe Kennedy, won the right to pray on the school field after games, illustrates a judicial trend toward religious freedom rights.

"If you're going to protect someone on the 50-yard line after the game ends, the Court is equally - if not more likely - to protect government employees who express religious messages when they're off duty and clearly off the clock," he said.

Austin firefighters © Austin Fire Department
Firefighters from the Austin fire department take part in training. © Austin Fire Department

Orthodox Christian beliefs are fast becoming minority beliefs in popular culture, said David Bernstein, executive director of the Liberty & Law Center, Antonin Scalia Law School - named for the late conservative Supreme Court justice - at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

"Businesses and government offices that are concerned with DEI [diversity, equity, inclusion] tend to be specifically concerned with ensuring 'minorities' feel comfortable, which is taken to mean racial, ethnic, sexual, and gender minorities, but not people with minority religious views," he said in an email.

"But in fact, traditional Christian views on many hot-button issues are actually in the minority, sometimes a small minority, so it makes no sense to consider them part of majority oppression."