COLUMBIA -- A former state employee has filed a federal lawsuit over his termination earlier this year after a diversity training session, an action he said amounts to trampling his free speech rights.

The State newspaper reports Mark Kelly, a 13-year veteran with the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, said he was fired after speaking up about faith and patriotism during diversity training in May.

"Mark Kelly is a man of faith and a man who has selflessly served his country for decades," said Kelly's lawyer, Benjamin Mabry. "Sadly, he and his formerly impeccable career have been destroyed."

Kelly's lawsuit alleges that at a May 3 diversity training session for department employees, the instructor said that when dealing with people from different cultures, "you should consider yourselves Americans second." The complaint said employees were told "you need to put your faith in the back seat" when communicating with people from different backgrounds.

Kelly's former department licenses builders, doctors and other professionals, inspects elevators and amusement rides and audits employment records of small businesses required to ask new employees for proof of legal residency.

Kelly, a veteran of the Army National Guard, said he disagreed with the instructor on several points, asking "At what point are we allowed to acknowledge our own faith or country?" On May 16, he was fired, according to a termination notice included with the complaint. The document said Kelly's exchanges with the instructor called into question whether he can effectively work with people from different backgrounds.

Catherine Templeton, the agency's director, said she can't discuss the specifics of Kelly's termination. But she said the agency is committed to upholding laws that prohibit workplace discrimination and harassment.