A former employee of the Bowling Green Fire Department has filed a civil lawsuit against the city government and the current deputy chief of the fire department, alleging he experienced continual harassment and retaliation by co-workers due to his religion and perceived sexual orientation. The complaint goes on to claim that many firefighters used repeated slurs toward African-Americans, Muslims and LGBT people, and one even burned a Quran in front of a fire station.
The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in Warren Circuit Court by attorneys Michele Henry and Aaron Bentley of the Louisville firm Craig Henry on behalf of their client Jeff Queen, who was a Bowling Green firefighter from 2011 to 2016. The complaint alleges that Queen lodged four complaints to his superiors while he was employed, but no one ever took any action and he was further retaliated against before he eventually quit, fearing for his safety.
Bowling Green Mayor Bruce Wilkerson sent Insider Louisville a prepared statement addressing the lawsuit on Thursday, saying the city “denies that it violated Mr. Queen’s civil or constitutional rights. Our firefighters are dedicated to their jobs and work hard to protect all citizens of the City of Bowling Green.” He added that “upon advice of counsel, the City’s policy is to not comment on specifics with regard to pending litigation. The City trusts the justice system will allow it to run its course, and we are confident the truth will come to light.”
Queen alleges in the lawsuit that he faced repeated harassment from co-workers because he is an atheist and was often called gay slurs. In one incident described in the complaint, a captain allegedly said he would burn down Queen’s house because he was an atheist, and in another a firefighter allegedly told him “if a homo works here, we’ll make sure he dies in a fire. We’ll chop his feet off.”
Queen’s complaint also alleges that both leadership and rank-and-file members of the fire department showed contempt for and used slurs to describe minority groups in Bowling Green, such as African-Americans, Muslims and the LGBT community. It refers to firefighters calling Muslims “towelheads” and “sandn—–” who should be deported or killed, and references a video — which is posted on the Craig Henry website — of one burning the Quran in front of a fire station. The complaint also alleges that a captain said atheists “deserve to burn,” and several referred to a group of African-American men as “hood rats,” “n——” and “thugs.”
The complaint also alleges that firefighters repeatedly called LGBT people “faggots” and suggested they would not touch LGBT people because they “probably had AIDS.” According to the complaint, a crew allegedly put such words into action, declining to offer medical care to a man experiencing chest pain after determining he was gay.
In addition to the city government, Queen is suing the fire department’s current deputy chief Dustin Rockrohr, who the lawsuit states Queen first lodged a complaint to about the slurs directed at him and groups in the community. The complaint alleges that Rockrohr became defensive, told him to reconsider such complaints, and said that Queen needed to “get with the program if you want to continue being a firefighter.” Queen claims that he faced an even more hostile work environment after that complaint and that no action was taken when he later lodged three formal anonymous complaints with the city’s human resources department and its ethics hotline.
Due to his increasing anxiety, the complaint states that Queen applied for and was granted a leave of absence from work in early 2016, pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act. Queen alleges that fire department management made several requests for information regarding his medical condition while on leave, which his attorneys allege is impermissible under the FMLA, before he was constructively discharged from the job in May.
The Bowling Green Fire Department is under the management of Bowling Green City Manager Brian DeFebbo, who referred IL’s questions on the lawsuit to Mayor Wilkerson and the city’s attorney in the matter, Jason Bell of Elizabethtown. DeFebbo said that while he had not yet seen the lawsuit, he was familiar with its claims and “we don’t know how much of it is true.” Bell has not returned a voicemail from IL seeking comment.
Mayor Wilkerson told IL in his statement that in response to Queen’s previous allegations, “the City has previously placed one firefighter on administrative leave pending further investigation. That employee has since opted for early retirement.” Wilkerson later told IL over email that Rockrohr is still employed as a firefighter, but declined to name the employee that retired. He also declined to answer IL’s questions on whether he was concerned by Queen’s allegations and if he believes those allegations to be false.
“Bowling Green is a community made up of many different racial, political, and religious viewpoints and we enjoy a special respect and appreciation for one another here,” said Wilkerson in his statement. “We want to encourage all our employees and citizens to have respect for others and keep Bowling Green a kind and caring community in which to live.”
The city released another statement Friday afternoon acknowledging that the firefighter put on leave this year was the one seen burning the Quran in the video, adding that “the actions of this one individual, as well as the various allegations made in the lawsuit, in no way represent the values of the City of Bowling Green and the Bowling Green Fire Department.”
A copy of Queen’s complaint can be read below: