No one knows how an action filed by Carl Wimmer, former Gunnison Valley school resource officer, with the Utah Anti-Discrimination and Labor Division (UADL) will turn out.
Wimmer says he was a victim of religious and age discrimination when he was not hired as Gunnison Valley police chief in 2020. And the UADL says there is “reasonable cause” to believe he’s right.
The Gunnison Valley Police Department is governed by a police board. That board selected the police chief. An attorney speaking for the board says the panel “categorically denies that it discriminated against Mr. Wimmer in any way, and is confident of its defenses.”
However the case plays out, it should be a wakeup call to counties, cities and businesses in locations such as Sanpete County where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the overwhelmingly dominant religion.
Don’t discuss religion
When hiring for a high-profile job, or any job for that matter, selection panels should not, must not, bring up whether a given candidate is LDS. In fact, they must not discuss any candidate’s religion at all.
In 2020, the Gunnison Valley Police Board, which oversees the joint Gunnison-Centerfield Police Department, advertised for a new police chief. The job announcement said the position required a bachelor’s degree.
All three full-time officers in the department applied. Of the three, only Wimmer had a degree.
Wimmer, who was in his 50s, had 30 years of law enforcement experience. Another applicant, who was in his 40s, had 14 years. The third applicant, who was in his late 30s, had seven years in law enforcement. Seth Hendricksen, the youngest and least experienced applicant, got the job.
Keith Garff, chairman of the police board, said, “All three of them were just stand up, but Seth just stood out for his involvement with the community.”
But there’s a back story
When Wimmer arrived in the Gunnison Valley in 2012, he was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A few months later, he converted to evangelical Christianity. Subsequently, he became the part-time pastor of a small, evangelical congregation in Gunnison.
When investigators from UALD asked Mayor Lori Nay of Gunnison and Mayor Tom Sorensen of Centerfield, if Wimmer’s religion had come up during the hiring process, both said “no.”
But in Utah, government entities, such as the police board, are required to tape all meetings, including executive sessions. The tapes proved Wimmer’s religion, his role as a part-time pastor and his age had been discussed.
Another factor that clearly affected the hiring decision was Wimmer’s handling of the explosive Gunnison Valley sex abuse case in 2018. That case also had religious overtones.
It started when a freshman football player at Gunnison Valley High School, where Wimmer was resource officer, told him that two other team members had held him down on the ground before football practice. While he was immobilized, a sophomore player pulled down his jersey and rubbed his genitals in the freshman’s face. The boy who reported the assault was also a member of Wimmer’s evangelical congregation.
Wimmer investigated the complaint and ultimately identified more than a dozen students who had been intimidated, harassed, or sexually assaulted by the same sophomore football player over at least the two previous years.
The sophomore, who ended up pleading guilty in juvenile court to eight counts of forcible sexual assault, was the son of the school athletic director and the grandson of a former mayor and county commissioner. His father was an LDS bishop at the time.
Some people in the community came to the defense of the youth and his family, and condemned Wimmer’s handling of the case. They claimed the incidents amounted to ordinary roughhousing among boys.
Received death threats
“During that case, I received death threats tucked under my car’s windshield wipers,” Wimmer told the Messenger.
Suffice it to say, anonymous threats against police officers for trying to enforce the law are not acceptable in Sanpete County.
The evidence shows Wimmer’s performance during the case was exemplary. The lead prosecutor said, “He’s done a fantastic job.” His boss at the time told the newspaper Wimmer had put a stop to behavior that had harmed the community for a long time.
A “proposed determination” from the UADL has gone to both parties to give them an opportunity to negotiate an out-of-court settlement. If they don’t, the proposed determination will become a “determination and order” in Wimmer’s favor. That order can be appealed to an administrative law judge with the Utah Labor Commission or to the courts.
Let’s be honest
Going back decades, state panels, school boards, city councils, panels set up to interview people for teaching jobs, and owners and officers in large and small businesses in Utah have discussed whether a given candidate would “fit” in the community.
In that context, they have often discussed the person’s membership or lack thereof, and activity level, in the LDS church.
It’s our observation that discussions of religion and de facto religious tests for jobs have decreased in the past decade as people have become more sensitized to the issue of discrimination and as more legal avenues for challenging discrimination have opened up.
How a candidate will fit in to a community or work group can certainly be selection criteria for a job. It’s just that evaluation of the “fit” cannot consider someone’s religion or lack thereof.
The Wimmer case is still wide open in the legal arena. But in practical fact, when evaluating his claims of discrimination, an old adage applies: If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck.