Fired city bus driver sues Key West alleging religious discrimination, racial remarks

A former Key West bus driver is suing the city, saying he was fired after telling his bosses he couldn't work during the 2014 Fantasy Fest parade because of his religious beliefs.

Bobby Walker Jr. of Kissimmee, who worked for the city less than one year, filed a civil-rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court March 3, nearly three months after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission dismissed his claim.

Walker, who is a Jehovah's Witness and is black, accuses city Transit Department heads of mocking his religious beliefs and making derogatory comments about his race before firing him from the $13-an-hour job in retaliation when he complained.

The city hasn't yet responded in court, but documents in Walker's employment file state he was fired for refusing to work the night shift New Year's Eve 2014.

"Had been warned verbally several times previously, including Fantasy Fest shuttles, by supervisor that he has to work when scheduled," wrote Norman Whitaker, the Transit Department director, in a request for dismissal dated this past Jan. 5. "Not eligible for rehire."

Walker says he asked for the time off two days before the 2014 Fantasy Fest parade, citing his religious beliefs as the reason he couldn't work, adding that his request would not have caused the city any hardship.

"Walker informed [his managers] that participation in the Fantasy Fest parade was contrary to his beliefs as a Jehovah's Witness," the lawsuit states. The city "allows non-Jehovah's Witnesses and non-black Americans to change their shift schedule."

Although the lawsuit doesn't go into detail about Jehovah's Witnesses, the church believes the Bible forbids pre-martial sex and sex should only be between one man and one woman after marriage.

The church also warns its members to steer clear from people who engage in sex practices in order to remain morally clean.

The day after Walker's request for time off, the court filing says, he was called into a meeting with Rogelio Hernandez, transit operations manager, and Vicente Rodriguez, assistant transit supervisor, to discuss the schedule request.

"Management openly mocked [Walker's] religious beliefs and threatened to write Mr. Walker up for purportedly not giving enough time to change the schedule," according to the suit filed by attorneys Jason Melton of Spring Hill and Jay Paul Lechner of St. Petersburg. 

Walker said his hours were cut and he was treated to vindictive acts, derogatory comments about his race and threats of losing his job. He wants back wages and compensation, along with punitive damages and attorney fees.

Walker worked as a temporary bus driver from May 27, 2014, until Jan. 2, 2015, earning an annual salary of $27,827, city staff said.

The case was assigned to Judge Jose Martinez. 

The EEOC in November found there wasn't enough evidence to show discrimination, a decision that gave Walker 90 days in which to file a lawsuit. Whitaker sent Walker a letter dated Dec. 31, 2014, informing him he was fired.