Why is employment discrimination a “religious freedom” issue?

Emma Green has another account in The Atlantic about the titanic clash between LGBT equality and religious freedom. This time, she’s taken on the 1985 Minnesota Supreme Court case McClure vs. Sports & Health Club, one of the only major court cases in which the owners of a for-profit business claimed that employing gay and lesbian workers violated their religious beliefs.

The Court rejected this claim. Emma Green has concerns.

Her biggest concern seems to be that court fights concerning an employer’s religious beliefs are messy (“by the time such fights go to court, no one involved is likely to win”). As people affiliated with Sports & Health told her, they felt as though they were caricatured in the media for being rabid anti-gay bigots when in fact they were…benign anti-gay bigots?

All too often, when LGBT people point out that many employers are hostile to employees who aren’t straight and gender conforming, they are told to just not be so, you know, gay when they’re at work. Why can’t you keep it to yourself? If you don’t want people to be uncomfortable, don’t tell anyone. Sandi Larson, the daughter of one of the defendants in the case, repeated this sentiment, insisting that “it wasn’t that [Sports & Health] wouldn’t allow homosexuals to be there, it’s just that they couldn’t act out what they were doing.”

Setting aside how impossible this is on a practical level — employees talk about their families, they bring their spouses to holiday parties, Janice in accounting’s pretty cute, right? — in the case Green describes, it wasn’t even an option. Employees at Sports & Health couldn’t hide; they were asked point blank if they were living in sin. As Green writes, “According to court documents, managers quizzed employees and prospective hires about their faith and behavior, and they openly discussed their opposition to homosexuality.”

That wasn’t all. From Green:

On July 11, 1984, [Pam] Lindgren was in the locker room of Sports & Health, shirt off, towel around her waist, about to get in the sauna after a workout. A woman she worked with as a personal trainer approached her for advice on building biceps more like Lindgren’s. “I wanted to tell her, ‘You can’t, sorry.’” Lindgren chuckled. “But I said, ‘This is what I do, but we can add this to your next routine.’ That is all that was.”

Religion and LGBT equality, via Wikimedia Commons

Religion and LGBT equality, via Wikimedia Commons

Someone, though, reported the encounter to the gym’s staff. The patron in question was “a known homosexual throughout the club,” Lindgren said. “She was tomboy-ish. She was butch. I don’t know how else to say it other than: She looked your stereotypical gay, just like people would say, back in the day.”

That night, the club manager, Stewart, called her at home to question her about why she would talk to a gay patron in the locker room without a shirt on. According to court documents, he “told her that homosexuality was against the word of God and that association with homosexuals was anti-Christian. He quoted Bible passages to her in an attempt to support these views.” As she remembers it, “I was in bed with a female, and I get this phone call, and why I picked up I don’t know, I always pick up when work calls even to this day—work needs me. And he asked if I was a practicing homosexual,” Lindgren said.

Lindgren was fired shortly thereafter.

This is a pretty open and shut case of employment discrimination — even in 1985. And when your employer fires you for being gay, the courts really are your only recourse. Green, however, remains highly skeptical of the merits of court fights. She instead seems keen on pointing out that the losers in these court cases have feelings, too:

After they were sued, [Larson] said, the three Sports & Health owners mostly parted ways. Her family had money troubles. Her dad didn’t work much after the gyms were closed, and in 1993, her parents relocated to Texas. “Quite honestly, my mother did not have any happy feelings whatsoever about Minnesota and everything they had been through there,” Larson said. “I think [she] was never happier than the day they moved.” Her other four sisters declined, through their sister, to talk to me. “My dad’s vision—his main goal in business—was to glorify the Lord.”Sandi Larson describes her father with the fondness of a youngest daughter: He was soft-spoken, if opinionated; gentle, if strict. The Owens family was evangelical and church-going, attending the non-denominational Calvary Memorial Church in Navarre, Minnesota, throughout Larson’s childhood. To her, there is no way to separate her father’s faith and his methods of running Sports & Health, where he was president.

Green never quite says whether she thinks the Minnesota Supreme Court made the right call, which leaves this as the main underlying point in her 2900 word article: The losers of court cases don’t just lose in court, and the winners’ victories aren’t always complete. The Owens family didn’t just lose when they paid (small) damages to the employees they discriminated against; the case amounted to a public rebuke of their very identities as Christians and a private disaster in their day-to-day lives. Pam Lindgren may have won her legal battle, but only after a long and painful legal process that forced her to say — in court, in 1985 — that she was sleeping with another woman.

Green seems to want us to remember that these anti-gay — excuse me, conservative Christian — employers are people, too. And that when LGBT equality bumps elbows with conservative Christian convictions against LGBT equality, it’d be nice if issues could be settled without ruining anyone’s life. As in, it’d be nice to keep these matters out of court when possible.

But that’s impossible, and Green knows it. When your employer ferrets out information about your personal identity, and then uses your personal identity against you because they feel it is irreconcilable with their personal faith, that conflict is practically impossible to resolve in your employer’s office. It will inevitably wind up in court. There will be winners and losers, the fight will get messy, feelings will get hurt. But the only alternative is for LGBT people to simply shut up and let these kinds of discrimination slide.

When the discrimination happens to be grounded in a sacred text, that is.

Had the Owens family applied a sexual orientation test to their employees without any religious justification, or if they had applied a different kind of identity test with a religious justification, I seriously doubt Green would have felt any reason to write her article. If an employer simply said, “I think gays are icky, and I don’t want to hire them,” I don’t think Green would have the same kind of sympathy that she does for the employers who say, “God says gays are going to Hell, and I don’t want to hire them.” In this sense, religion is providing cover for what in a secular context would be considered odious.

I also doubt that Green would spend much energy reminding us that employers who say God prohibits them from hiring Jews, African-Americans, women or any other historically marginalized group are potentially the victims of an “oppressive state.” In this sense, one particular religious belief is serving as a foil for what’s being presented as a broad argument, when in fact that argument doesn’t apply to any other religious expression.

At the end of the day, this isn’t about religious freedom in a general sense. This is about, as Green herself puts it, “the comfort of being part of a silent consensus” — a “consensus” built almost entirely on one belief held by one subset of one faith.

She walks right up to the line of identifying that comfort for what it is — undeserved privilege — but she doesn’t quite cross it. If she had, it would have saved her quite a bit of time.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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