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Lifeguard who took down Pride flags at beach sues L.A. County over religious discrimination

June 2023 photo of security guards raising the Progress Pride Flag in downtown Los Angeles.
Security guards Gregory Winfrey, left, and Benedicto Barnachea raise the Progress Pride Flag over the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration in June 2023.
(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)
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A longtime Los Angeles County lifeguard stationed in Pacific Palisades near a stretch beloved by gay beachgoers is suing the county for requiring him to work feet away from a Pride flag last summer and punishing him for taking three of the flags down.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court May 24 a week before this year’s Pride month kicks off, brings the county’s sparkling coastline squarely into the nation’s culture wars.

Jeffrey Little, an evangelical Christian who has worked for the county for more than 22 years, is represented by attorneys from the Thomas More Society, a conservative Catholic legal group known for challenging abortion rights, the 2020 election results and same-sex marriage.

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In a show of support for LBGTQ+ constituents, officials with both the city of Los Angeles and L.A. County have recently pushed to raise the Pride flag at government buildings. Last year, the county board of supervisors voted to require that many government buildings fly the Progress Pride flag throughout Pride month.

That included the lifeguard facilities where Little worked at Will Rogers Beach, which is home to a historically LGBTQ+ friendly section known as Ginger Rogers Beach.

A spokesperson for the L.A. County fire department, which oversees lifeguards, said the agency does not comment on personnel issues or ongoing litigation.

Little, a captain with the county’s lifeguard division, told higher-ups in June that he wanted to be exempt from the county policy ordering the raising of the flag, which is a modified version of the traditional rainbow flag with extra stripes representing people of color and transgender and nonbinary people.

He informed them that he was a devout evangelical who “adheres to traditional Christian beliefs regarding the moral illicitness of same-sex activity, the immutability of sex regardless of gender identity, and the view that all people are children of God regardless of their skin color” according to the lawsuit.

“The views commonly associated with the Progress Pride flag on marriage, sex, and family are in direct conflict with Captain Little’s bona fide and sincerely held religious beliefs on the same subjects,” the suit said.

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Last June, some of the county’s lifeguard stations weren’t flying the Pride flag because they didn’t have the right flagpoles, according to the suit. At Little’s request, his bosses initially agreed to give him a religious accommodation and change his shift so he could work at a site that didn’t have a flag, the lawsuit said.

When he arrived at Dockweiler Beach on June 21 — one of the sites he alleged was supposed to be flagless — Little said he found the Pride flag hoisted at three nearby facilities, according to a complaint he filed with the county. He was informed that a chief had dropped off the flags and ordered they be flown, which Little alleged was a form of religious discrimination.

“I was confused [as] to why they were flying as I was under the impression that I would not have to deal with working in these conditions,” he wrote in the complaint filed June 22.

He took down all three flags, according to the suit.

The next day, Fernando Boiteux, the chief of the lifeguard division, hand-delivered him a “direct order” to ensure the Pride flag was flown through June.

The day after, according to the lawsuit, Little was suspended from his role with the department’s background investigation unit, which investigates “emergency incidents” on the beach. Little also said he later received a death threat in the mail at his home calling him a “fascist pig” and threatening his children, according to a copy of the note attached in the lawsuit.

This spring, Little asked again for accommodations so he wouldn’t have to work near the Pride flag, according to the suit. He said the county has not “substantively engaged” with him and warned him he would be subject “to discipline and eventual termination for failure to raise the Progress Pride flag.”

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The suit, which names the fire department as well as three higher-ups in the lifeguard division, accuses the county of discrimination and trampling on Little’s religious freedom. Little is asking a judge to order the county to give him a “standing exemption” from raising the Pride flag and for damages for “severe emotional distress,” among other demands.

Little earned $210,000 last year, according to publicly available salary records, and also works as a certified financial planner. According to his business’ website, he serves on the board of the Los Angeles County Lifeguard Assn., which advocates for county lifeguards, and is a member of a county committee overseeing employee retirement plans.

Attorneys Charles S. LiMandri and Paul M. Jonna, who both have their own law firms and serve as special counsel for the Thomas More Society, did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2021, LiMandri represented a church that was violating L.A. County COVID prohibitions against indoor services. The county agreed in a settlement to pay $400,000 to the church.

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