Charlotte — A former Lee County sheriff’s deputy has filed a federal lawsuit claiming his termination on Sept. 11, 2017, by Sheriff Tracy Carter was based on religious discrimination and retaliation.
The lawsuit was filed July 31 in U.S. District Court in Charlotte.
Manuel A. Torres, 51, of Sanford said he was fired from the Lee County Sheriff’s Office for refusing to train a female deputy because it violated his religious beliefs. He further claims he was rejected for employment at the Siler City and Apex police departments based on false information given by the sheriff’s office.
Carter declined to comment Tuesday.
“Torres holds the strong and sincere religious belief that the Holy Bible prohibits him, as a married man, from being alone for extended periods with a female who is not his wife,” the lawsuit says.
Doing so would violate his beliefs of being around a woman other than his wife, which would give “the appearance of sinful conduct on his part,” the documents say. The belief is popularly known as the “Billy Graham Rule” because, according to The Charlotte Observer, the late evangelist in 1948 worked with his staff to come up with rules that included calling on each worker to not spend one-on-one time with a woman who wasn’t his wife.
In July 2017, Torres was ordered to train a female deputy, which would require him to be alone with her for “significant amounts of time.”
On July 19, Torres asked Sgt. Jeff Oldham for a “reasonable religious accommodation” allowing him to be taken off the training assignment. In the next weeks, the lawsuit says, Oldham alternated between granting and denying the request.
Torres went to Oldham’s supervisors about the actions and the denial of his request, and was assured that the situation would be handled.
Afterward, the lawsuit says, Oldham, angered that Torres went up the chain of command, retaliated by failing to respond to provide him backup at a multivehicle wreck “in an unsafe area.” Torres had to use his stun gun on two suspects who were fighting, the lawsuit says, and a gun was at the scene.
An officer from a neighboring jurisdiction responded, the lawsuit says, “when the LCSO refused or neglected to do so for almost a half hour.”
On Sept. 6, 2017, documents say, Chief Deputy Randall Butler spoke with Torres about his religious accommodation request. Butler “expressed his anger” about the request and Torres’ beliefs against being alone with a woman other than his wife.
On Nov. 9, 2017, Torres filed charges of religious discrimination against the sheriff’s office.
In July 2018, Torres filed a second claim against the sheriff’s office, claiming “false referrals” to the Siler City and Apex police departments were made in retaliation.
During interviews with each department, Torres told them what happened in Lee County, according to the lawsuit. Torres was offered a job as a patrol officer with the Siler City Police Department pending a background check. Even though he passed required pre-hire tests, the job offer was rescinded.
He interviewed with the Apex department, and passed background checks and a required polygraph. However, the lawsuit says, the sheriff’s office gave an officer doing a background check false information about Torres’ job performance. Upon learning of the religious accommodation request, Apex never responded to Torres’ calls or emails about the job position, the lawsuit says.
Torres is seeking to be reinstated in the Lee County Sheriff’s Office; more than $300,000 in compensatory damages; and more than $15,000 in punitive damages.