Bowling Green fire department accused of lacking diversity and acceptance

Brittiny Moore

Jeff Queen stood silent as his fellow firemen debated their course of action concerning the unconscious man lying on the floor of his home. Another man who the firefighters suspected was the partner of the victim, hovered around the group anxiously, frantic about his partner who laid unconscious and unattended to.  According to a statement written by Queen, he and other members of the Bowling Green Fire Department had entered the home of the resident in response to a medical emergency call of a man suffering from heart complications. All of the responding firefighters were CPR trained, a life-saving technique, and after minutes of life threatening hesitance, Queen decided to step in.

Responding to medical emergencies is common for firefighters, however, according to Queen’s statement during this specific medical emergency, several of Bowling Green’s firefighters refused to provide medical attention to the unconscious resident. Queen said that his fellow firemen, assuming both of the home’s residents to be gay, refused to tend to the unconscious man, including a refusal to provide CPR, on the bias of his assumed sexual orientation.

Following the incident Queen said other firefighters began to question his sexual orientation and he was even called a “faggot.”

“I was really surprised,” Queen’s sister-in-law Alayna Milby said after reading through the statement Queen had provided to her. “Firefighters are supposed to be the good guys.”

Queen declined an interview through his attorney.

After nearly five years of allegedly enduring constant harassment and retaliation, Queen filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit with his attorney against the city of Bowling Green and members of its fire department in August 2016.  According to a complaint filed by Louisville law firm Craig Henry PLC on behalf of Queen, he often faced derogatory and threatening attacks including being called a “faggot,” being told that atheists should burn and being tripped by a commanding officer. Queen said the harassment was reported, but that the city of Bowling Green failed to investigate. According to Queen, members of the fire department also made insulting comments regarding members of the Bowling Green community, including calling Muslims “sand niggers” and “towelheads” and referring to African Americans as “niggers.”

On Sept. 2, 2016, the city of Bowling Green filed a response to Queen’s complaint denying most of the accusations held against the fire department. According to the response, the city claims that the alleged harassment could have been avoided if Queen had worked to mitigate his problems. The city also said since the harassment complained of did not result in Queen’s termination that it was not severe enough to be inescapable. No liability for the actions of any members of the fire department is being taken by the city.

Having already received backlash from co-workers, the Queens rarely visit Bowling Green since Jeff Queen’s leave of absence in fear they might encounter someone from the fire department.

Growing up in White House, Tennessee, Queen was raised in a traditional Christian home. His mother tended to the house while his father worked to provide for the family and life was marked by the regular attendance of Queen, his two brothers and his parents to the Pentecostal church.

Although Queen went in and out of school, spending time being home-schooled, the vast majority of his childhood was spent attending private Christian schools. Religion was a prominent force in Queen’s life and it would also bring him to meet his future spouse.

Queen met his now-spouse, Jami, through church. It was in high school when they met, also the time in Queen’s life when he had decided he wanted to be a firefighter. Queen married Jami at 19.

“He was wanting to help people,” Milby said.

In 2009 Queen began fire science and electrician courses at Hill College with the aspiration to complete his dream to become a firefighter. After undertaking EMT training in 2010 and finishing his International Fire Service Accreditation Congress certification and physical training in Bowling Green in early 2011, Queen became a certified firefighter and was hired by the city of Bowling Green in late 2011.

Only two and half months after being hired by the city, Queen, who is an atheist, said in the complaint that he was repeatedly asked about his religious affiliation. While assigned to station four, Queen said he was told by Capt. Jason Colson, the current fire chief, that he needed to join a church. Queen said that Capt. Paul Campbell told him he needed to get right with Jesus on several occasions.

In 2013 Capt. Todd Barnard openly said that atheists “deserve to burn,” Queen said, and in 2014, while employed at the Airport Station, Queen said he was forced to attend Bible study sessions during station dinners.

Queen cites in the complaint that the verbal abuse and extensive questioning of his religious beliefs by fellow firefighters made him fear for his safety. Queen feared that his co-workers would not support him in an emergency situation, and after publicly acknowledging that he is an atheist in early 2016, Capt. Eric Smith and a firefighter stated they would “burn his house down.”

“He got to help, but often expressed discomfort,” Milby said. “He pushed through the physical harassment, he really wanted it to work out.”

The fire department’s harassment was not limited to religious issues and fellow firefighters and commanding officers also engaged in harassment of Queen based on his sexual orientation. Following the medical emergency incident, Queen said he was repeatedly asked if he was gay and was accused of being gay by firefighters and management. Sgt. Caleb Hulsey and Capt. Melvin Norris said to him, “Hey Queen, you still work here? Didn’t you know, no fags allowed?”

Queen said he made several attempts to report the inappropriate behavior to captains, the fire department’s human resources and the city’s ethics hotline, all which were ignored or met with defensive behavior.  Worried for his safety, Queen said he complained to Capt. Dustin Rockrohr, who told Queen that he needed to “get with the program if you want to continue being a firefighter.”

After Queen’s complaints, Queen said his work environment became even more hostile and included threats to him and his family.

“They made threats to Jeff, to Jami and the kids including sexual assault towards Jami,” Milby said.

Along with the derogatory statements about Queen and his family, Queen claims that the fire department employees frequently made hateful comments toward African American, Muslim and LGBT members of the Bowling Green community.

Queen said Assistant Chief of Training, Norman Simpson, was heard repeatedly referring to African Americans using the “n” word, referring to Muslims as “towelheads,” referring to individuals who had religious beliefs other than Christianity as “pagans” and “atheists,” and referring to gay and lesbian individuals as “homos” and “faggots.” Queen said in his complaint that various members of the fire department made statements that they would not touch “faggots” and “homos” because they “probably had AIDS.” Queen recalls Chief Donnie Frye, Capt. Steven Daniels, Sgt. Hulsey and a firefighter making comments referring to the LGBT community including “let them burn.”

“Jeff faked through conversations to keep his job,” Milby said. “He often avoided direct questions.”

Ashes fell and smoke bellowed up from the singed pages of the Quran as a fire brewed from the lighter held at its base. A firefighter, assigned to the Airport Station, is seen in a video posted on the Craig Henry PLC website, Queen’s attorney, setting fire to a Quran in front of the fire station. The scripture was set ablaze against the yellow brick of the station, as seen in the video, and the only audio is of the firefighter mocking the Muslim call to prayer and stating, “burn them all.”

Queen’s complaint states that the fire department’s hostility toward Muslims reached a peak in late 2015 with the burning of the Quran. Queen recalled specific comments made during a fundraiser at a local Wal-Mart when members of the fire department called donating citizens “towelhead,” “jihadis” and “ali-babas.”

After being physically assaulted by a commanding officer and facing threats to kill any atheist or gay firefighter, Queen said he experienced anxiety to a degree that he required a leave of absence in February 2016.  While on leave Queen was contacted several times by fire department management requesting information regarding his medical condition. Queen feared to return to work with co-workers who had openly stated a desire to harm him, and in May 2016, Queen resigned from the fire department.

“It was very upsetting to Jeff,” Milby said. “You imagine wanting to help people, only to find out that I’m surrounded by people who don’t think the way I do.

“It’s like your dream job is not what you want it to be.”

After several attempts to contact the fire department, no response for comment was made.

Queen’s case is currently in the pre-trial procedure known as discovery in which each party involved collects evidence to support their case.  In this civil case, Queen is suing for alleged civil rights and Family and Medical Leave Act violations and discrimination in connection with the fire department, according to a case report.  The case will not be ready for trial until June of 2018, and according to Queen’s representing attorney, Michele Henry, it is likely that the case may be settled outside of court.

The City of Bowling Green and Rockrohr will be represented by city attorney, Eugene Harmon, and Louisville attorney Jason Bell. Bell, a member of the Christian Legal Society and a Sunday school teacher, is an attorney at Bell, Hess and Van Zant, PLC, a group of attorneys who openly express their Christian faith, calling their faith of “paramount importance” on their website.

“We are denying all allegations,” Harmon said in a phone interview. “We will let the court system run its course.”

According to the lawsuit complaint, Queen is seeking that the court grant judgment in his favor and against Bowling Green and the fire department for trial by jury on all claims made within the complaint. Queen is also seeking to be reinstated to his position at the fire department, relief from damages and attorney’s fees and for monetary compensation of lost wages.

“I hope the investigation is thorough and that any violation or misconduct is dealt with appropriately such that the city of Bowling Green affirms that it is a welcoming and inclusive place where illegal discrimination will not be tolerated,” said Lisa Fulkerson in a Facebook message, Attorney and Immigration Program Manager for the Bowling Green center of the International Center of Kentucky. The International Center works with refugees and helps them assimilate to life in an American community.  This aspect of Bowling Green makes the city a hub for foreign citizens.

“We want people to know,” Vice President of Bowling Green’s Black Lives Matter Brandon Render said in a phone interview. “This issue affects everyone in the community.”

Render said the BLM is not surprised by the accusations of the complaint due to the lack of diversity in the department.

“They’re not very diverse and they don’t seem very accepting,” Render said. “We’re waiting to see how city officials will respond to this case.”

Since filing the complaint and resigning from the fire department, Queen has begun his own car-sharing business for long distance traveling. It’s a career move he is passionate about, Milby said, and Queen hopes to grow this business, add on a partner, and one day purchase a Tesla car to use for travel.  Queen has also been attending training courses and has already served his first client. Milby said she knows it must be hard for Queen to be trusting enough to continue to work with people, but that it is something Queen was made to do.

“It shows he wants to be around people,” Milby said. “He wants to help people.”

Queen, with his spouse Jami, is now raising two children, Oakley, 6, and Lili, 3. Unlike in their childhoods, the two have chosen to raise their children without religion.

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