INDIANAPOLIS - Three Indiana state workers have been disciplined over forwarding joke emails on the job, and one has filed a federal court lawsuit claiming religion made his punishment more severe.
All three workers handled various functions at the Indiana Department of Workforce Development .
For five years, Army veteran Ron Ogle worked in a special unit based in Columbus that helped to prepare other veterans for finding new jobs.
"Veterans have kind of their own language," he said, adding that, "My job was not just a job, it was a passion."
He filed a federal civil rights lawsuit this month, claiming he was unjustly fired over a joke email in November 2010. His lawsuit claims that other state workers in his same department received lighter punishment because of which religions were targeted in the joke emails that were forwarded.
"There was no warning that this was coming, and it was just like where did this come from? I was shocked," Ogle said.
He admitted to forwarding an email, which appeared to equate the Muslim faith with violence .
The photograph in the email depicts a sign from a barbecue restaurant called "Little Pigs" in Asheville, N.C. A message board beneath the sign appeared to read, "Safest restaurant on Earth. No Muslims inside."
Ogle denied that the forward was insulting to Muslims, saying it was merely making a joke out of the fact that Muslims do not eat pork.
"I still don't believe that it was anything that was really derogatory," he said.
A copy of the email included in his lawsuit shows that Ogle attached his own comment, "I think this is wonderful" before he forwarded it to others.
He said he forwarded it only to other veterans, but one of those veterans in his own department ended up turning on him.
"That's what shocked me. I could not believe that he turned on me," he said.
After his firing, he appealed and won his job back with full back pay. He said he no longer is assigned to work with veterans, but the main goal of his lawsuit is to force the state to pay a penalty for his wrongful termination.
"I fell into a depression. I was unable to actually function as a dad, as a husband, whatever the case may be. I isolated myself. My wife says that I bunkered," he said.
His lawsuit claims that he had never been in trouble on the job before this episode, while two other Department of Workforce Development workers with checkered pasts were given lighter punishments over similar email forwards with religious tones .
Both workers were handed five-day suspensions, citing the same computer use policy for state employees, but Ogle's attorney said those workers forwarded a much longer email that made fun of other religions and did not mention Islam.
"The punishment didn't fit the crime, so to speak," said attorney Michael Cork.
"There were 20-plus pages and those two individuals both had previous disciplinary issues," he said.
"The different treatment is only, in my mind, based on religion," Cork said, adding, "The state agency, the Department of Workforce Development, seems to be treating Islam with a definite preference."
Department of Workforce Development spokesman Joseph Frank wrote in an email, "We can't comment on personnel matters or pending litigation for obvious reasons."
The North Carolina restaurant manager has been quoted in online reports, saying his sign has never contained that phrase regarding Muslims. The message appears to have been created using Photoshop or some other picture altering program.
A recent study of online "loafing" in the workplace found that most workers who log onto the Internet at work spend 60 to 80 percent of their time doing things that have nothing to do with work. Even when employees knew their bosses may be monitoring, or that they could be fired, the academic study found most workers continue their personal online activities.
While Ogle has already been returned to work at his original salary, complete with back pay, his civil rights lawsuit is asking a federal judge to penalize the state. He is asking for money to be awarded as a penalty for what he calls a wrongful termination.