Man dressed as armed Santa claims firing tied to photo

The Detroit News

Santa Claus says he was fired for holding a gun.

In this case, Santa is Calvin Congden of Tipton, Michigan, who likes to dress as the Jolly One for charity events.

But when he posted a photo of himself dressed as Santa and clutching a semiautomatic rifle to Facebook in 2015, he claims a supervisor at the state Department of Health and Human Services wasn’t happy. Congden had recently started working for the department as a child protective services worker.

He was let go by the agency at the end of his yearlong probation and blames the manager’s distaste for the armed Santa photo.

Congden filed a federal lawsuit against the agency Friday, saying it violated his rights to free speech and bear arms. The Army vet, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, also says the state discriminated against him because of his disability.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit, names the state agency and three supervisors, Allison Zinn, Emilee Hudson and Zoe Lyons. The pleading asks for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, and to be reinstated to the job.

A spokesman for the state department couldn’t be reached for comment.

Congden had worked as a corrections officer for 17 years before transferring to the child protective services job in the summer of 2015, according to the lawsuit. He worked out of the agency’s offices in Jackson County.

For many years Congden has helped children in need by, among other things, dressing as Santa for a yearly event held by Hillsdale Foster Care Children as a Hillsdale bowling alley, according to the lawsuit.

Before the event in December 2015, he posted the photo of himself holding the assault rifle in his home. In the background is his Christmas tree, an American flag and his military medals and commendations.

Congden often uses Facebook to espouse his views, including his support of the right to bear arms, according to the lawsuit.

After the photo was posted, Congden learned that Zinn had seen the photo and warned coworkers to beware of Congden because he was a veteran, owned firearms, and “looked crazy” in the picture, said the lawsuit.

Congden contacted Hudson, Lyons and his state representative, telling them about Zinn’s comments and what he perceived as discrimination against a disabled vet, according to the lawsuit.

Two weeks later, Congden received a disciplinary action for the first time, he said in the lawsuit. Over the next several months, he received a series of counselings and write-ups.

He said he was faulted for his grammar and falling behind on documenting cases, but that other workers who committed the same infractions weren’t cited, the lawsuit contends.

After nine months on the job, Congden was told he was emotionally unfit for the job, according to the pleading. In July 2016, his one-year probationary rating was “unsatisfactory” and he was told he would be terminated before the end of his probation.

In July 2016 he was terminated, he said in the lawsuit.