Judge upholds Lee jail's pants-only policy

By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal

Crystal Finnie, a former Lee County juvenile detention officer, lost her bid for damages after she claimed she was fired because she refused to wear trousers.
Finnie was fired in April 2009 after a series of requests to be allowed to wear a skirt because of religious beliefs.
At issue was a uniform policy that detention officers must wear pants furnished by the sheriff’s department.
Finnie apparently abided by this policy, without complaint, until September 2008 after she converted to the Pentecostal faith and was under the conviction that she could no longer wear pants.
She reportedly spoke with Sheriff Jim Johnson, whom she said seemed supportive, and then asked the facility administrator for permission to wear a skirt. He said he’d ask Johnson.
Before hearing back from officials, Finnie began wearing a skirt until March 6, 2009, when she was warned she would be suspended without pay if the practice continued.
At the end of the day, the facility’s administrator told her to get in compliance or resign.
Three days later, she filed a charge of religious and gender discrimination with the EEOC. In April she was fired.
She sued in March 2010, alleging violation of her First Amendment rights of free speech and exercise of religion. She also claimed she was retaliated against.
In her 67-page opinion filed Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Sharion Aycock ruled that the jail pants-only policy does not infringe upon Finnie’s free-speech rights and is constitutional. She also said Finnie’s termination was not sex-based because she was not replaced by a man or treated less favorably than others with respect to her firing.
Aycock’s ruling also states that Finnie failed to prove that she was discriminated against, when the evidence is taken as a whole.
“The ‘pants-only’ dress code here applies to all employees equally; it does not single out males or females,” the judge writes.
Aycock says the defendants – Johnson and Lee County – “have presented competent, summary judgment evidence that a skirt like plaintiff’s would indeed cause risks of respect to safety and security” at the detention facility.
Evidence also shows that no other jobs were available in the department that might have allowed Finnie to wear a skirt and that she was not fired because of her religion.
Aycock denied Finnie’s claim that she was fired in retaliation for her EEOC complaint, although the judge said disputes still exist on that issue.
patsy.brumfield@journalinc.com