UPDATE: Appeals court sides with sheriff in uniform case

Lee County StockBy Holbrook Mohr

Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A federal appeals court has sided with a Mississippi sheriff in a lawsuit in which a former correction officer said the department infringed on her religious beliefs by requiring she wear pants instead of a skirt.

The court record says Crystal Finnie worked for the Lee County Sheriff’s Department for years and abided by the uniform policy, which required officers to wear pants. She converted to the Pentecostal religion in 2008 and decided she could no longer wear traditional men’s clothing, like pants.

She filed suit in 2010 after being fired.

A three-judge panel from the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans on Thursday upheld a lower court ruling that sided with the sheriff.

Gary Carnathan, an attorney for Lee County, said the sheriff and other county officials had always believed the uniform policy was lawful and that they were pleased with the ruling.

Finnie’s lawyer didn’t immediately respond to a message.

Sheriff Jim Johnson told Finnie that she would have to adhere to the uniform policy and wear pants in March 2008, according to the court record.

“Finnie thereafter took accrued vacation leave, contacted an attorney, and filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,” the court record said.

After meeting with the sheriff again, in April 2009, Finnie was fired.

She sued in March 2010 on the basis that the firing violated her First Amendment rights and also alleged religious and gender discrimination. U.S. District Judge Sharion Aycock dismissed the lawsuit in July 2012.

Finnie appealed to the 5th Circuit based on the argument that she was fired in retaliation for filing the EEOC complaint.

The three-judge panel concluded that Finnie did not meet the burden of proof that she was fired because of that complaint.

“The record contains uncontroverted evidence that on March 16, 2008, before Finnie even consulted an attorney and before she filed a charge with the EEOC, Sheriff Johnson definitively and conclusively informed Finnie that her employment would be terminated if she failed to wear pants to work,” the appeals court judges wrote.