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July 28, 2021
Wednesday, July 28, 2021

‘Deeply Troubling’: Biden Fires Attorney Who Defended Religious Liberty of Employees

An attorney within the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission who had gained a reputation for defending religious liberty was fired by President Biden Friday, the same day she sent the White House a letter stating she would not resign.

Sharon Fast Gustafson was nominated by President Trump as EEOC general counsel in March 2018 and confirmed by the Senate in August 2019. Her term was set to expire in August 2023. 

The EEOC is an independent agency within the federal government. 

Under her leadership, EEOC filed a lawsuit against Kroger on behalf of two employees who said they were fired after refusing to wear LGBT-themed aprons. The women “believed the emblem endorsed LGBTQ values and that wearing it would violate their religious beliefs,” the EEOC said in a news release at the time.

Biden requested Gustafson’s resignation, but she refused in a letter to Biden dated March 5. She was firedthe same day. 

“Your request that I resign provided no reason for the request, and I do not know which of your advisors recommended that you make the request,” she wrote. “But please be aware that there are those who oppose my advocacy on behalf of employees who experience religious discrimination and on behalf of constitutional and statutory protections for religious entities. I would like to continue my work on the EEOC’S mission to prevent and remedy illegal employment discrimination.”

In the year 2020, Gustafson said in the letter, the EEOC filed 37 lawsuits based on sex and 29 based on disability. Other lawsuits filed included ones based on retaliation (26), race (13), age (7), religion (5) and national origin (4).

“I have confidently given this advice to countless embattled clients over the last 25 years: hold your head high, do your best work, and do not resign under pressure. In solidarity with them, I will follow that advice,” she wrote. “Civil rights is a bipartisan issue, and all the statutes I enforce as General Counsel were passed with bipartisan support.”

Gustafson said her work promoting religious liberty had been removed from the EEOC website after Biden was inaugurated. Among the work that was erased: a “religious discrimination work group” report based on listening sessions involving Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs. A podcast she recorded about the report also was removed after she posted it in February, she said. 

“I can only assume that my resignation would be followed by similar suppression of our work promoting religious freedom,” she wrote. 

Andrea R. Lucas, a Trump-appointed commissioner of the EEOC, criticized the firing, saying she fears “combating religious discrimination” will not be a priority within the Biden administration.

“I find the action taken today by the White House against our independent agency to be deeply troubling, a break from long-established norms respected by presidents of both parties, an injection of partisanship where it had been absent, and telling evidence of what ‘unity’ actually means to this President and his Administration,” Lucas tweeted. “In his inaugural address, the President said, ‘The right to dissent peaceably, within the guardrails of our Republic, is perhaps our nation’s greatest strength.’

“That, however, does not seem to apply to Sharon Gustafson. And if such a principle does not apply to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – the very agency charged with preventing and remedying discrimination and retaliation – where else does it apply?”

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