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A Real-Life Conflict Between Religion and Marriage Equality

November 9th, 2009 No comments

This story from FOX News illustrates the conflict that can arise in the workplace where anti-discrimination norms bump up  against strongly held religious views. In sum, one Brookstone employee, Peter Vidala, didn’t appreciate another’s telling him that she had gotten married to her same-sex spouse. (All relevant events in this story took place in Massachusetts.) After a few moments of prayerful reflection, he came back with this statement to her:

“Regarding your homosexuality, I think that’s bad stuff.”

She complained, left, apparently reported the incident to Human Resources, and Vidala was fired. He continues to defend his position, saying that calling same-sex unions “marriages” is “lunacy.” Brookstone has a different view, as set forth in this termination letter:

“In the state of Massachusetts, same-sex marriage is legal and there will be people with whom you work with who have fiancées or spouses who are the same gender…While you are entitled to your own beliefs, imposing them upon others in the workplace is not acceptable and in this case, by telling a colleague that she is deviant and immoral, constitutes discrimination and harassment.”

He’s considering filing a complaint with the EEOC.

This is a case that could have been avoided, of course: Vidala could simply have asked that the woman focus on work, or might have thought of something to say that was less offensive, and therefore less likely to trigger her outraged response. Memo: No one likes to be told that their identity, and the exercise of their legal rights, is “bad stuff.” That’s especially true where the person on the receiving end is part of a historically disfavored group. Once same-sex unions are legal, the comment is no different than if he’d said: “Your marrying someone of a different race is “bad stuff.”

I should also say that the woman impugned (who hasn’t been identified, to my knowledge) could have given the guy another chance, a warning, suggested he consider some diversity training, etc. But not everyone is so magnanimous, nor should one expect them to be.

I don’t think he has a claim; free speech and the free exercise of religion (which isn’t as directly implicated anyway) aren’t absolute, and anti-discrimination laws declare some speech and conduct off-limits. For example, a male employee can’t use the First Amendment as a shield for telling a female subordinate that her body is [fill in the suggestive remark], and that he’d like to take her out for dinner. This isn’t the era of Mad Men.

What would be the result under the religious exemption laws that some scholars flog so relentlessly, calling such protections needed where marriage equality becomes law? Not so clear, I would say. If religious objectors involved in commerce can “step aside” and refuse to facilitate same-sex marriages (as by declining to cater a gay wedding), can they also be shielded against anti-discrimination laws for expressing a view against gay marriages? Doesn’t such expression have less impact than a refusal to deal? And if the laws could potentially apply to that situation, then let’s pick apart Vidala’s comments to see whether they were based only on the marriage (protected, potentially, under this view), or on a broader discomfort with homosexuality (not protected).

It also seems as thought this case underscores the need for educating people about the diverse society in which they live. If kids aren’t told about, and counseled to respect, others with whom they (their parents, really) disagree, they might become Peter Vidalas: unable to hold their tongue even when their comments end up harming both themselves and their fellow employees.