Prescription for trouble

A Montana State Hospital nurse is alleging that she was denied a job promotion because she failed to study a Christian fundamentalist primer on ethical leadership. In a lawsuit filed April 23 in Missoula District Court, MSH staffer and Anaconda resident Isabel O’Brien says the text does not belong in a government workplace.

“This text is perhaps appropriate for an evangelical Christian retreat, but patently inappropriate to issue to applicants (all of them already government employees) as part of the interview process,” the filing stated.

MSH provides inpatient psychiatric services for adults with serious mental illness. O’Brien says nurse supervisor Dave Olson gave her and others applying for MSH’s assistant nursing director position copies of Robert L. Vernon’s Eight Ethics of Highly Effective Leaders. Vernon is a former assistant Los Angeles Police Department chief who, before retiring in 1992, triggered a widely publicized investigation into claims that he imposed personal religious beliefs on subordinates.

According to O’Brien, Vernon’s book has at least 16 separate citations to the New American Bible. And of the questions asked of her during the interview, “many (if not most) were specific references to the book.”

O’Brien argues that she didn’t get the promotion because, after finding the publication “objectionable and inappropriate,” she refused to read it. “She was among the most qualified who applied for the position, having extremely high reviews and significant experience,” the lawsuit says.

Prior to filing the lawsuit, O’Brien lodged a formal complaint with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, which oversees the hospital. The grievance triggered an internal investigation that confirmed Olson provided Vernon’s book to candidates. However, when the hospital’s human resources director learned what was happening, the inquiry found Olson was instructed to “discontinue distributing the book.”

According to the investigation, MSH Human Resources Director Todd Thun and CEO Joan Daly vetted candidate interview questions and, “The book played no role in the competitive hiring.”

In January, the Montana Human Rights Bureau also determined that no unlawful discrimination occurred.

In the wake of those decisions, O’Brien maintains in her lawsuit that MSH violated constitutional assurances against government-imposed religious mandates and that she’s entitled to damages. She’s requesting the court convene a jury to deliberate her claims.

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