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Why a Missouri woman’s court victory ‘concerned’ Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito

The new Supreme Court session gets underway Monday.
Phil Roeder
The U.S. Supreme Court.

A case that began with a Missouri prison guard suing the state for workplace discrimination has “concerned” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. The problem, he wrote, is the possibility that religious people who view homosexuality as a sin will be “labeled as bigots and treated as such.”

Alito’s statement came in a Feb. 20 rejection of an appeal filed by Missouri’s Department of Corrections, which had sought a new trial in a lawsuit filed by Jean Finney. Finney sued the department alleging retaliation after she entered a same-sex relationship with the former wife of a coworker.

Finney won her case in 2022, but it was the jury selection process that triggered Alito’s discomfort: Finney’s attorneys had asked the jurors about their religious beliefs about gay relationships, striking those jurors who said it was a sin.

Alito wrote that the case is a sign of “danger” for “Americans who do not hide their adherence to traditional religious beliefs about homosexual conduct.”

But Finney’s orientation, and her relationship with a woman, was key to her discrimination claims, noted attorney Erin Lueker, who discussed the case during Thursday’s Legal Roundtable panel on St. Louis on the Air. Lueker is a former public defender and prosecutor who now practices employment law at the firm Sedey Harper Westhoff.

“This was not a case where the plaintiff's attorney in jury selection was reaching outside the bounds of the factual issues at heart,” Lueker said. “The key is for the courts, and for both the plaintiffs and defendants, to sit an impartial juror. So identifying those key issues that may have an impact based off of personal beliefs, or identities, is key to sitting a fair jury.”

Alito’s remarks on the Missouri case generated national coverage, not just for his opinion on a juror’s religious beliefs, but for connecting that criticism with the Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 decision that legalized same-sex marriage. (Alito agreed with the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the appeal of the Finney ruling on technical grounds.)

Attorney Connie McFarland-Butler said that Finney’s case highlights the ways that lawyers must be careful in the way they use the legal tools at their disposal to select juries.

“The goal at the end of the day is to ensure that you have individuals who are not automatically biased,” she said. “Is your belief system such that you believe that homosexuality is a sin, it's an abomination before God, and because of that belief system you can't get to the core issue in this case, as to whether or not the person has been discriminated against?”

Along with Erin Lueker and Connie McFarland-Butler, Thursday’s Legal Roundtable panel featured Bill Freivogel, an attorney and a professor for the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Other cases taken up for discussion by the panel included a case of donors suing Webster University, hazing at Eureka High School, and a Missouri lawyer using artificial intelligence to write legal briefs.

To hear the full discussion and analysis by the Legal Roundtable, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast or by clicking the play button below.

Legal Roundtable covers Alito criticism, hazing at Eureka HS, Webster University problems, more

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."