Miamian Fired for Anointing Desks With Oily Crosses Wasn't Discriminated Against, Judge Rules

On an August morning two years ago, Eric Cheeley arrived at work in the City of Miami's capital improvements department at his usual time, around 6 a.m. A devout Pentecostal, he liked to get there early to read his Bible.

This day, however, he took his religious practices a step further. After blessing the office, he walked cubicle to cubicle, anointing his co-workers' desks with oil, which he smeared in the shape of crosses.

Cheeley was already out in the field when his co-workers arrived at the office. They were a bit freaked out. One employee thought the crosses represented Santería; others worried it was some sort of workplace threat. Before long, police were called to investigate, and the office shut down for the better part of the morning. Back at work around lunchtime, Cheeley tried to explain what had happened.

"[I] was sitting in my cubicle crying; I thought I heard what, in my opinion, God telling me: 'Look, just bless the department... and go on about your business,'" he told police. He was fired the next day.

Cheeley later sued the city for religious discrimination and asked for back pay and attorneys' fees.

"For the duration of his almost seven years of employment, Mr. Cheeley was an exemplary employee [and] was never reprimanded in any way, except for the discriminatory termination and retaliation for the expression of his religious beliefs," his complaint stated. 

Just this month, however, a federal judge has denied his claim, saying Cheeley failed to prove the city fired him for religious practices rather than for ruining its property. 

"Cheeley’s application of the oily substance caused actual damage to his employer's property and disrupted its business," U.S. District Judge Robert Scola Jr. wrote in his decision. "These facts are undisputed."

Although Scola denied the federal claim, Cheeley can continue to fight the case in state court. His attorney, Ansana Singh, did not respond to a request for comment from New Times.

The city points out that Cheeley could have been arrested for staining the cloth cubicle walls. After investigating, police referred the case to the State Attorney's Office for prosecution, but he was never charged.
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Jessica Lipscomb is news editor of Miami New Times and an enthusiastic Florida Woman. Born and raised in Orlando, she has been a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists.
Contact: Jessica Lipscomb