OMAHA — A former longtime Nebraska State Patrol trooper is asking the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to revive his lawsuit against the patrol's now ex-leader Brad Rice.

Todd Steckelberg of Elkhorn, who was a trooper for more than 25 years before retiring, alleged Rice had a grudge against him, kept him from promotions and forced him to spend a shift with a chaplain as part of a work-improvement plan.

Steckelberg alleged that, as State Patrol colonel, Rice accused him of misconduct. When he was cleared, Rice accused him of lying and spurred an internal investigation.

In March, U.S. District Judge John Gerrard found the conclusions Steckelberg had drawn about Rice's motivations were unsupported by facts.

"And more fundamentally, the plaintiff has still not alleged anything regarding the chaplain's activities, particularly any religious proselytizing," the judge wrote in an order dismissing the lawsuit against Rice and others at the State Patrol.

Steckelberg appealed, which led to oral arguments Thursday, where his attorney, Joy Shiffermiller, said she didn't see how they weren't at least entitled to go forward with discovery on the claim that he had been denied a transfer.

She said after Steckelberg was cleared of wrongdoing in an arbitration hearing, Rice had tried to brand him as dishonest, alleging he had testified falsely at the hearing.

"A man's word, as a trooper, is his bond," Shiffermiller said.

She said Steckelberg kept his job, but the situation created a hostile work environment, and he applied for other positions but was denied.

Assistant Nebraska Attorney General David Lopez argued that, "In two careful, thorough and comprehensive opinions, Judge Gerrard here reached the right conclusion, which is after stepping through each of the plaintiff's claims ... he has failed to allege sufficient facts."

The judges, Duane Benton, Bobby Shepherd and Jane Kelly, appeared interested in the allegation that Steckelberg had been forced to do a ride-along with the chaplain.

"Why isn't that enough?" Kelly asked, suggesting it seemed unusual. "Why can't you make an inference that you would be riding along with a chaplain for religious-based reasons?"

Lopez said the court would have to create a new rule that any interaction with a chaplain was, in itself, a violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause, prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

"There has to be some showing of coercion," he said.

That wasn't alleged here.

Lopez argued Steckelberg's case doesn't come anywhere close to reaching the bar to go forward.

In rebuttal, Shiffermiller said Steckelberg was required by a supervisor to do the ride-along. There's no other purpose than religious proselytizing, she argued.

"I don't think the chaplain has to say the Rosary when he's in the car with him," she said.

Shepherd didn't sound convinced.

"Do you have a case (you cite) for that? That merely being in the presence of clergy ... would be coercion and would be a violation of the Establishment Clause?" he asked.

Shiffermiller said there were several, including one where a government employee was required to go to AA meetings.

The court took the case under advisement.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or lpilger@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSpilger.

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Lori Pilger is a public safety reporter.

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