Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Two federal cases allege religious discrimination at NIH

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Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
Rabbi Reeve Brenner, in his Rockville home, was fired from the National Institutes of Health’s Clinical Center Spiritual Ministry Department, where he worked as a Jewish chaplain.
Two former chaplains at the National Institutes of Health are alleging religious discrimination in the agency’s Spiritual Ministry Department.

Both chaplains were fired for what they claim was retaliation after testifying in another chaplain’s discrimination case. One chaplain’s testimony indicates complaints were brought to NIH administration in 2005, while the chaplain was employed by NIH.

Edar Rogler, a Greek Orthodox professional lay chaplain from Annapolis, filed a federal complaint last month. Rabbi Reeve Brenner of Rockville has appealed his firing to the Merit Systems Protection Board — an independent agency that protects federal employees’ rights — and is seeking reappointment. Brenner’s attorneys said a decision will probably be made by summer.

The NIH and the administrators involved declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

Rogler’s suit cites ‘‘anti-Semitic” remarks by the Rev. Owen Ray Fitzgerald, who headed the chaplain’s office when Rogler and two other chaplains were fired. According to the suit, Rogler heard Fitzgerald refer to the rabbi as ‘‘that Jew,” ‘‘the butthead Jew” and ‘‘the crass Jew.”

In July 2004, the Rev. Henry Heffernan, a Roman Catholic priest who lives in Washington, was fired after 10 years in the chaplain’s office. Two federal panels — including the Merit Systems Protection Board — decided earlier this year that Heffernan had been discriminated against and ordered NIH to reinstate him. Heffernan returned to work four weeks ago. Although Fitzgerald, a Methodist minister, remains a full-time employee at NIH, he no longer heads the Spiritual Ministry Department.

‘‘It’s been a pleasant process of renewing the friendships and cooperation that were there before,” Heffernan told The Gazette. ‘‘There are more patients to be seen than I am able to see. That was the fundamental issue before, and it still hasn’t been resolved.”

Chaplains in the Magnuson Clinical Center’s nondenominational spiritual ministry office visit patients and family members during the week and lead services in the center’s chapel. The office’s approach to ministry allows imams and rabbis to provide spiritual services to Roman Catholics or Protestants and vice versa.

Fitzgerald, the former chief chaplain, fired Heffernan and later fired Brenner.

Ten to 12 chaplains have been ‘‘fired, dismissed or forced out in some way” since Brenner began working at NIH in 1999, he said in an earlier interview with The Gazette.

Brenner said he was fired because he had testified for Heffernan. ‘‘I was told to testify that I had no recollection ... in that matter,” Brenner said. ‘‘When in fact I had plenty of recollection.”

The rabbi said he was fired in February based on incorrect claims that he was not visiting his patients on a scheduled workday, the Sabbath of repentance between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Rogler, the Greek Orthodox chaplain who was hired after the Catholic priest was fired, said there was hostility against Brenner and against Heffernan after he was fired.

Rogler was unacquainted with Heffernan when she testified in his case.

Fitzgerald told Rogler he had a degree in psychology and tried to manipulate Heffernan, according to the EEOC decision and Rogler’s hearing testimony. Fitzgerald told her that, as the head of the department, he ‘‘stands in the shoes of God.” Fitzgerald joked about Roman Catholic priests being pedophiles and said he ‘‘would never hire another Roman Catholic priest again,” according to Rogler’s testimony.

According to the EEOC decision, Fitzgerald did not dispute Rogler’s testimony.

Rogler’s statements to the EEOC suggested that NIH administrators knew of her concerns about how the chaplain’s office was being run.

According to Rogler’s EEOC testimony, Rogler told Fitzgerald in November 2005 that she felt ‘‘like I had entered a religious war zone and that staff seem to be angry and resentful about Fitzgerald’s treatment of chaplains.”

The next month, Rogler said, she met with Walter Jones, the clinical center’s deputy director for management and diversity, to discuss her concerns. She said the meeting was sparked by an e-mail she had sent to an administrator saying ‘‘that the department’s a mess.”

But when Rogler arrived at Jones’s office, she was fired.

‘‘[Jones] said that NIH is a big family and they’ve all known each other for years, and that he is not going to take the time to sort through all this confusion, and that he can terminate my contract for the convenience of the government,” Rogler told the EEOC. ‘‘But I could get a good reference and two weeks pay if I let bygones be bygones and never tell anybody anything about what I heard or saw at NIH.”

According to Rogler, she was fired the day that Fitzgerald learned she would testify at the EEOC hearings.

Rogler is seeking compensation and punitive damages of more than $5 million. Brenner is asking for his job back.

‘‘What was going on at NIH was a pretend multi-faith chaplaincy,” Brenner said.