City to drop investigation into officer's views on homosexuality
WASHINGTON (BP)--Officials in Traverse City, Mich., have announced they would drop an investigation of a local police officer for comments he made about homosexuality, CNSNews.com reported Jan. 15.
Still unclear, however, is whether the local Human Rights Commission -- whose members are appointed by the city council -- will drop its allegation that officer David Leach violated anti-discrimination policy by criticizing a bumper sticker that promoted homosexuality.
The city's decision not to investigate Leach came on the heels of a letter City Manager Richard Lewis received from an Ann Arbor law center threatening the city with a federal lawsuit if the probe into Leach's conduct did not stop.
The Thomas More Center for Law and Justice sent a letter to Lewis on Jan. 12 demanding that the city cease its investigation of Leach's comments on homosexuality and that the city expunge from Leach's record any adverse comments or reprimands arising from the issue.
"A public employee does not surrender his First Amendment rights on accepting public employment, especially when he's speaking as a public citizen on a matter of public concern," said Robert Muise, associate counsel at the law center.
"That's clearly what this issue was and that's all that he had done," Muise told CNSNews.com. "For him to be penalized and harmed at his work because of this would violate his civil rights."
On the same day the letter was faxed, Police Chief Ralph Soffredine announced Leach had been cleared. "There was no violation of policy and he was only exercising his First Amendment rights. We have the same obligation to protect his First Amendment rights as we do any other citizen," Soffredine told reporters.
The controversy began Dec. 19 when the city decided to spend $2,000 on rainbow-colored bumper stickers to post on municipal and other vehicles, including police cars. The stickers featured a rainbow background symbolizing gay pride and the words: "We Are Traverse City."
Leach, a patrolman and evidence technician who joined the Traverse City Police Department in 1971, became the first city employee to publicly protest the order. Known to his fellow officers as a devout Christian, Leach participated in a discussion of the stickers on a local radio station and said he was "opposed to the lifestyle of the homosexual."
Leach was not the only objector. An outcry from city residents and family groups forced the city to reconsider its decision.
After an examination, the city attorney ruled that posting a bumper sticker on a public vehicle featuring the flag of a particular organization or movement would open up the city to demands by other groups to allow their symbols to be displayed on city vehicles. The city attorney recommended that the stickers should be removed and the city manager complied.
However, Leach became a target for local Human Rights Commission members, who called for an investigation of his comments. The officer's comments may have violated the city's anti-discrimination policy, the commission said.
Sharon Leach, the officer's wife, told CNSNews.com Jan. 15 she is grateful for "more than 200 emails" and about 100 telephone calls from well-wishers around the country who offered their support.
The city police chief, the city manager and the city attorney said publicly that her husband did nothing wrong, she said, and she hoped the matter was at an end.
Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association of Michigan, said it was "certainly good news that city officials seem anxious to avoid a civil rights lawsuit by officer David Leach, but until we see a position taken by the city in writing we will not see the issue of the persecution of officer David Leach resolved.
"As City Manager Richard Lewis pointed out, the Human Rights Commission supposedly is an autonomous body and remains free to take action on its own, even though members are appointed by the mayor with the consent of the city commission. We are also waiting to see if the so-called Human Rights Commission will go along with other city officials or whether they will continue their witch hunt against Officer Leach."
In the meantime the incident has served to awaken a sleeping giant of public opinion in Traverse City.
Over the weekend a local citizens' group launched a petition drive to place on the November ballot a city charter amendment that would prohibit the city from ever adopting a civil rights policy based on homosexual behavior.
"This is probably just going to be the first in a very long discussion among citizens of Traverse City leading up to November when it appears they will have an opportunity to vote on the issue," Glenn said.
Morahan is a senior staff writer with CNSNews.com. Used by permission.