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Man appeals dismissal of black grocery bagger case

By Peggy Jones pljones@news-journal.com
Jan. 27, 2013 at 11 p.m.

A Hawkins man has appealed a federal judge's dismissal of his lawsuit, which claimed his civil rights and religious freedom were violated by a Big Sandy grocer who banned him for complaining about a black man sacking his groceries.

DeWitt R. Thomas, who describes himself as an adherent of Vedism, said Sunday that U.S. District Judge Rodney Gilstrap erred when he dismissed the case in November.

"Actually, he tried to say it was frivolous," Thomas said. "But he allowed me to proceed as a pauper. When he allowed me to do that, he said I had a case."

Thomas filed an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit on Jan. 11.

He said Sunday that the judge in November set out a discovery plan which, in his mind, also substantiated he has a case. Gilstrap ruled Nov. 21 that Thomas was not entitled to appeal the case as a pauper.

"The Court has found that Mr. Thomas' claims wholly lack merit and the case was dismissed frivolous," the judge wrote. "Mr. Thomas is not entitled to proceed in forma pauperis."

The case gained national attention this past year. In his lawsuit, Thomas said that by allowing a black employee to sack his groceries after being told it violated his religious creed, Two Rivers Grocery violated his civil rights and religious freedom.

In an interview Sunday, the Hawkins man said his lawsuit has been mischaracterized from the start.

"I would like to clarify, this lawsuit is not about some Negroid handling my groceries, although that is how it started out," Thomas said. "My lawsuit is about a man locking me in the store unlawfully. My lawsuit is about him refusing me the right to contract and him refusing to accommodate me - that's against the law."

Thomas said Vedism prohibits black people from touching his food in his presence.

"It is definitely against my creed to have this man handle my food," he said. "They are considered the untouchables. In some places they are considered the unseeables."

After learning of the first incident, in which Thomas insisted the black man not sack his groceries, Two Rivers Grocery owner Keith Langston filed a criminal trespass complaint against Thomas. When Thomas returned two days later, the same man was sacking groceries, so, Thomas said, he again requested the black man not handle his groceries. Langston called Big Sandy police to serve the criminal trespass warning against Thomas. While they waited on police, a store employee locked the doors, the suit alleged. By locking him inside the store, Langston committed unlawful restraint, Thomas said in his lawsuit.

Langston said Sunday the doors were locked because it was closing time, not to keep Thomas in the store.

"We were closing when he came in. He was free to leave any time but he was so busy trying to explain his idiot religion ... we always lock the door at 9 o'clock. We've never locked anybody in, we lock others out ... It was a stupid case to begin with. He was never wronged," the grocer said.

Thomas said if he loses his appeal on the federal case, he intends to take his lawsuit to the state district court.



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