A longtime Delaware County department director has filed a lawsuit alleging her employers punished her for her religious convictions.

A longtime Delaware County department director has filed a lawsuit alleging her employers punished her for her religious convictions.

Terry Conant, Delaware County's dog warden since 1986, has accused Delaware County officials of unfairly disciplining her because she is a practicing evangelical Christian.

The 48-year-old Ashley woman on Aug. 22 filed a discriminatory complaint against Delaware County commissioners Glenn Evans and Jim Ward, as well as former human resource director Kevin Williams, in the Delaware County Common Pleas Court. She's seeking more than $50,000 in damages she said she's incurred as the result of her compromised professional reputation and lost pay following a 2006 job suspension.

"The conduct of defendants was outrageous, was done in a deliberate, callous, malicious, fraudulent and oppressive manner intended to injure Ms. Conant, was with an improper and evil motive amounting to malice and spite caused by animosity and hostility toward her religious beliefs and faith, and was done in conscious disregard of Ms. Conant's rights," Michael Moses, Conant's attorney, alleged in the lawsuit.

As of press time, the county hadn't responded to the lawsuit. A representative of the Delaware County Prosecutor's Office said the matter was being referred to an outside attorney, and declined further comment.

According to the filing, Conant has been a "born again" Christian since age 14, prays publicly and "lives out her religious beliefs and convictions in her daily life."

The lawsuit stated Conant is a decorated employee who received excellent performance evaluations throughout her tenure, but that changed in 2005 after she led a group prayer during lunch at a County Dog Warden's Association meeting.

Conant accused Williams of verbally reprimanding her for leading the prayer, and alleges a subsequent performance evaluation cautioned her not to allow her personal beliefs or practices to interfere with her employment.

Conant's personnel file indicates she visited the victim of a dog mauling in October 2005 while the case was being investigated by the Delaware County Sheriff's Office.

"Although the visit with the victim was certainly understandable from a moral point of view and may have brought some comfort to the victim's family, as a matter of investigatory procedure it was erroneous to do and allow, and may have jeopardized the investigation process and justice for the victim," Williams wrote in a subsequent memo to Conant.

In January 2006, Conant alleges assistant dog warden Bob Ferguson, Evans, Ward and Williams collaborated to accuse her of deficient performance, failure to perform her job duties, dishonesty and falsification following her response to an August 2005 stray dogs report on Polaris Parkway.

Conant's personnel file states Conant failed to properly respond or dispatch an assistant dog warden following the report, and failed to file a dog bite report with the county health district. It also asserts she was dishonest with a dog owner regarding the site from which his dog was seized, and utilized county equipment for personal reasons.

In August 2006, Evans and Ward voted to suspend her for 30 days without pay. The lawsuit states she was suspended for another three days in October 2006 for failing to return to work on Columbus Day.

Conant's lawsuit comes less than a year after the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group Americans United for Separation of Church and State called on the commissioners to cease opening public meetings with prayers, which the group said showed preference to Christianity.

No legal action resulted from that incident, and Evans and Jordan continue to open meetings with prayers. Ward calls for a moment of silence to honor "those fighting for our freedoms."

Ward didn't return a call seeking comment on Conant's lawsuit, and Ferguson declined to address the allegations it made against him.

Evans, however, said he was surprised at the allegations against him given his well-known stance on prayers before meetings. He added that Conant's suspensions were based not on her beliefs, but on her job performance.

"I read (the lawsuit) in amazement," Evans said. "I don't know if I've been asleep at meetings, but there's no substance to what's being said."

Commissioner Kris Jordan voted for Conant's suspensions, as well, but is not named in the lawsuit.

Since the suspensions, Conant has filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission claiming discrimination and retaliation.

The lawsuit filed in Delaware County requests reinstatement of Conant's managerial duties.

When asked why Jordan was not named in the lawsuit and to explain why Conant shouldn't have been disciplined, Moses said, "Ms. Conant believes that the evidence at trial will demonstrate the county's suspension was discriminatory."

nellis@thisweeknews.com