Former Employee Sues Miami-Dade County for Violating Rights of Religion, Free Speech

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A former employee of Miami-Dade County in Florida is suing the county’s board of commissioners after he says he was fired over his Christian beliefs about transgender ideology and his refusal to attend punitive “diversity training.”

John Labriola, who served as a media aide for the Miami-Dade County Board of Commissioners from 2013 to 2021, wrote an opinion piece that was included in the March 2021 edition of Sophie’s Voice (pdf), a newsletter published by Sophie Publishing House Inc.

In the piece, Labriola expressed strong opposition to the Equality Act, a bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in February 2021 that would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

The bill must first be passed by the U.S. Senate before it can reach the desk of the president to be vetoed or signed into law.

Labriola suggested the bill would “write transgenderism into law” and “require crossdressing men to be allowed to use women’s restrooms, locker rooms and shower facilities and compete in women’s sports, and force doctors to perform sexual mutilation surgeries at taxpayer expense, while simultaneously expanding taxpayer funding of abortion on demand, forcing transgender indoctrination on schoolchildren, and removing custody rights from parents who refuse to have their minor children undergo ‘gender reassignment.’”

Labriola is being represented in his lawsuit (pdf) by Alexander Bumbu of Pacific Justice Institute, a California-based nonprofit legal defense organization.

The Backlash

On March 3, 2021, Maggie Fernandez, chief of staff for Miami-Dade County Commissioner Eileen Higgins, forwarded an email (pdf) she received from “a concerned citizen” who came across the newsletter and found it offensive.

Erin New, director of Miami-Dade County’s human rights and fair employment practices, also received an email (pdf) from Orlando Gonzales, executive director of activist group SAVE LGBTQ. Gonzales had read an article in the Miami Herald about Labriola’s piece and wrote to New, stating that Labriola “conducted himself in manner that blatantly demonstrates his bias against LGBTQ people,” which made him “a danger to the community” and “unfit for a role in government as civil servant.”

Gonzales then urged that the county “fully investigate this matter and discipline Mr. Labriola by dismissing him from his role.”

The Epoch Times reached out to Gonzales, who declined to comment.

The Discipline

In a series of documents (pdf) obtained by The Epoch Times, the path of disciplinary actions against Labriola is laid out.

On March 5, 2021, a disciplinary action report was filed with a written reprimand against Labriola, in which Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz, chair of the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners, issued a three-day suspension without pay. Diaz also ordered Labriola to “participate in training regarding the County’s anti-discrimination policies.”

“You must contact the Human Resources Department within the next 7 days to schedule the training,” Diaz wrote. “I expect you to have completed this training within the next 30 days.”

Through a series of emails, Diaz’s chief of staff, Isidoro R. Lopez, repeatedly instructed Labriola to schedule and attend the anti-discrimination training as ordered by Diaz.

On March 24, 2021, Lopez sent an email, reiterating chronologically the list of orders Labriola had been given, specifically that he had yet to comply with the mandate to attend “sensitivity training.”

“If you do not timely contact Ms. Green [in the HR Department] in the time and in the manner mandated by this direct order, you will be violating a direct order and committing an act of insubordination among other violations which will subject you to discipline up to and including dismissal from employment,” Lopez wrote.

Lopez also sent an email to Diaz, stating that Labriola had not complied with the March 5 order to schedule the extra training.

“It is my understanding that if he complies on time, he can continue to work,” Lopez posited. “If he does not comply by 4pm tomorrow, what should I do?”

Diaz replied, saying “if he complies, then he can continue to work. If he does not comply by tomorrow at 4pm, please send him paperwork dismissing him from employment effective immediately tomorrow.”

The Reminder

On March 27, 2021, Labriola confirmed to Lopez by email his receipt of her reminder.

“Please know that I find all of this extremely distressing,” Labriola wrote, asking why he was “being harassed and discriminated against” for voicing his personal religious beliefs in what he believed was a violation of the county’s human rights and fair employment practices and policies.

“Why am I being singled out for disciplinary action and remedial ‘sensitivity training’ as punishment for exercising my right to express my views on my private time as a private citizen?” Labriola asked. “Why is the County surrendering to the unjust demands of ideological extremists seeking to crush everyone who disagrees with proposed legislation that many Americans consider severely detrimental to public health, safety, welfare and freedom of speech and religion? Other than the desire to placate outside extremist pressure groups, the County has not provided me with any other credible reason for the discipline nor identified any specific words in my online published commentary which could have triggered this action.”

On March 29, 2021, Lopez told Labriola that his “claim of distress is self-imposed,” reiterating that all he had to do was contact the human resources department to schedule and attend “a virtual training session regarding County policy.”

“That was a simple task that you were ordered to perform and yet you still have not complied,” she admonished. “The order did not mention or demand that you surrender your conscience or your beliefs as you mention in your email.”

“Once again,” she concluded. “I encourage you to comply today.”

In an April 13, 2021, letter (pdf), Diaz informed Labriola that because he’d refused to comply with the order to schedule the training session, he was “hereby dismissed from County employment effective immediately.”

Arleene Cuellar, Miami-Dade County’s human resources (HR) director, sent a memo to New on May 4, 2021, stating that the HR department’s review “did not find any evidence to establish that Mr. Labriola engaged in any harassing or discriminatory behavior based on any protected characteristic within the workplace.”

“However,” the report concludes, “the findings revealed that Mr. Labriola’s use of extremely inappropriate and offensive language in the newsletter article did constitute a violation of County policies, including Implementing Order 7-45 (pdf).”

The Rules and Policies

According to an April 28, 2021, memo (pdf) from Cuellar to her fellow department directors, “Miami-Dade County is committed to ensuring inclusive programs, policies and employment practices for all of our employees and residents.”

“In order to ensure safe and welcoming work environments for all of our employees,” the county “recently refreshed their employee training workshops, which are now currently available to all County employees and supervisors.” Topics such as “unconscious bias,” “racial bias,” and “LGBTQ+ sensitivity” are among those addressed in the seven workshops listed. Religious bias is not addressed.

According to the county’s rules (pdf), “that the employee has been guilty of conduct unbecoming an employee of the County whether on or off duty, provided allegations shall be specific and shall describe the conduct that is the basis of the charge” is listed among the rules for “Reasons for Dismissal, Demotions and Suspensions.”

But according to an overview of the county’s anti-discrimination policy, “religion” and “the exercise of their constitutional or statutory rights” are included among the “protected classes,” along with “sexual orientation” and “gender identity or expression.”

However, Labriola’s attorneys contend that it was Miami-Dade County and the board of commissioners who violated Labriola’s rights of speech, religion, and press, as provided by Title 42 of the U.S. Constitution.

The Laws

Title 42 states that “Every person who … subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person … the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law.”

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

In the lawsuit (pdf), Labriola’s attorneys argue that “this case is much bigger than Mr. Labriola. … This case is about the County’s use of its dangerous ‘mute’ button to silence religious speech that it doesn’t like and to compel speech that it does like. It is also about the County’s discrimination against one of its employees based on religion, as well as about the County’s failure to follow its own policy.”

The Attorneys

According to Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), the effort to “punish employees working for the government for speech used off hours on a platform unrelated to the government” is “a trend across the nation.”

PJI specializes in the defense of religious freedom, parental rights, and other civil liberties.

Brad Dacus, President of Pacific Justice Institute.
Brad Dacus, president of Pacific Justice Institute. (Courtesy of Brad Dakus)

While the rules in Miami-Dade County decree that county employees “found guilty of conduct unbecoming, whether on or off duty” is a reason for dismissal, demotion, or suspension, Dacus told The Epoch Times “that’s part of the problem.”

He cited similar cases in which his firm is currently involved. In Iowa, a government employee was fired for holding Bible study classes addressing sexuality issues from a Biblical perspective during his off hours. In Oregon, two teachers were fired for expressing concern with policies preventing them from notifying parents if their children were having gender dysphoria issues and for opposing a mandate to use pronouns that went against their convictions and beliefs.

“We sued,” Dacus said. “We got their jobs back and now we’re suing for lost wages.”

According to Dacus this growing trend of intolerance and censorship is “dangerous to the survival of a free nation and the continued relevance of our Constitution as applied to our free speech rights.”

“Without question, Miami-Dade County violated the First Amendment,” Dacus said in an Oct. 3, 2022, PJI press release (pdf) about Labriola’s case. “Mr. Bumbu will hold the County accountable in a court of law.”

Alexander Bumbu, Staff Attorney at Pacific Justice Institute.
Alexander Bumbu, staff attorney at Pacific Justice Institute. (Courtesy of Alexander Bumbu)

“This case is about freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of the press,” Alexander Bumbu told The Epoch Times, adding that we cannot have these freedoms “if the government punishes its employees for their use of that freedom on their own time and dime, especially when those employees are low ranking and have no power to shape government policy.”

“In this case,” Bumbu asserted, “Miami-Dade County’s actions jeopardized the core, Constitutional rights of every County employee by threatening them with termination for simply exercising those rights.”

The Training

According to the training module (pdf) for the “Overview of the County’s Anti-Discrimination Policy,” the stratagem is “to ensure that all employees are able to enjoy a work environment free from all forms of discrimination, including harassment and retaliation.”

Slide 8 in the training module lists disparate treatment, disparate impact, harassment, and retaliation as the four types of illegal discrimination.

Slide # 8 from the Training Module, "Overview of the County's Anti-Discrimination Policy."
Slide 8 from the training module, “Overview of the County’s Anti-Discrimination Policy.”
(Miami-Dade County Human Rights & Fair Employment Practices Division)

According to Dacus, Labriola suffered each of these for expressing his opinions on his own time as a private citizen based on his religious beliefs, through his First Amendment right of free speech. In the meantime, “his performance in the workplace was beyond reproach.”

“Individuals do not shed their First Amendment rights once they begin to work for the government,” Dacus insisted.

Nor do government employees deserve to have their privacy uncomfortably violated.

Slide 13 in the training module addresses restroom policies, acknowledging that “sometimes coworkers object to going in the same bathroom with a transgender person.”

However, those objections are dismissed as “less of an issue than people think it is,” suggesting that if “management declares this policy,” subordinate employees will dutifully follow “the lead of management.”

“Also helpful is an attitude that indicates that this is ‘no big deal.’”

Slide # 13 from the Training Module, "Overview of the County's Anti-Discrimination Policy" regarding restroom policies.
Slide 13 from the training module, “Overview of the County’s Anti-Discrimination Policy” regarding restroom policies. (Miami-Dade County Human Rights & Fair Employment Practices Division)

“The County’s policies are insensitive and intolerant to the diversity of employees who may have very reasonable objections to feeling personally violated on a daily basis when it comes to something so necessitous to using the restroom,” Dacus said. “This lack of sensitivity for all employees is very problematic for this county and contrary to basic rules of human dignity and respect.”

The “Transgender Sensitivity and Inclusion” training module (pdf) teaches county employees about transgender ideology: what the words “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender” mean, the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity/expression, gender transition, what it means to transition, transgender in binary terms, and all the rules to be followed to avoid offending transgender employees.

Slide 33 teaches government employees how to recognize “factors contributing to a hostile work environment for a transgender person,” like refusal to use preferred pronouns, “carelessness in never learning to use the correct pronoun,” or refusal to use a person’s preferred name.

Screenshot of Slide #33 from the Transgender Sensitivity and Inclusion Training Module, teaching government employees how to "recognize the factors contributing to a hostile environment for a transgender person."
Slide 33 from the “Transgender Sensitivity and Inclusion Training Module,” teaching government employees how to “recognize the factors contributing to a hostile environment for a transgender person.” (Miami-Dade County Human Rights & Fair Employment Practices Division)

“No employee should have to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs and convictions in order to work for the county,” Dacus insisted. “The county, instead, pursuant to Title 7, should try to reasonably accommodate the religious beliefs of those who have objections to using pronouns they consider to be false.”

Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law that already protects employees against discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, and religion.

“True tolerance goes both ways and respect must exist for all employees,” Dacus concluded. “Unfortunately, this county has not provided such a work environment and has instead become an enemy for true tolerance and accommodation to all employees in the workplace.”

The Epoch Times reached out to the Miami-Dade County Board of Commissioners for comment.

Patricia Tolson

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Patricia Tolson, an award-winning national investigative reporter with 20 years of experience, has worked for such news outlets as Yahoo!, U.S. News, and The Tampa Free Press. With The Epoch Times, Patricia’s in-depth investigative coverage of human interest stories, election policies, education, school boards, and parental rights has achieved international exposure. Send her your story ideas: patricia.tolson@epochtimes.us



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