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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11 Responses to “Why is employment discrimination a “religious freedom” issue?”

  1. sane37 says:

    People should be free to believe. When they turn that belief into a business, it should be taxed accordingly.

  2. Sabih Hassan says:

    Religious freedom should be there, this is the right of common man. Because economy can’t afford such things. If you can’t believe it then read this: http://www.financialdesk360.com/detail/708334

  3. Jon Green says:


  4. John Masters says:

    Funny, on several Conservative pages, when they claim, “it’s their business, they get to decide who they’re going to serve,” I ask, “so you’d also be OK with getting out the “No Coloreds Allowed” signs and putting those back up?” To a one, they don’t dispute that, just go back to, “it’s their business, they should be able to decide who to provide service.” It’s amazing, and the African-American conservative Christians better wake up to who they’re getting in bed with. These are people that, if they get the RFRA laws passed, will take them way beyond just discriminating against LGBT people.

    As I’ve always said about these bakers and photographers…their rights have not been infringed. They are still free to, on whatever their Sabbath days is, to go whatever place of worship they choose, pray to whichever god they want, in whatever way they want, and say ugly things about whoever they want. They don’t even have to wait until Sunday or when they are in church…nothing about that changed the day after the Obergfell ruling. And nothing changed about the expectations placed on them in the public market. They still have to sell whatever they normally sell to whoever comes by wanting to buy it, which is how it was before Obergfell.

    Their religious beliefs would be infringed if they were compelled to get an abortion, or marry someone they didn’t want to marry. That’s not happening (although I guess there may still be the occasional shotgun wedding, but that’s a different discussion). I’d be at the front of the protest march if the government was compelling people to marry or get abortions, but I’ve yet to see that…although those kinds of things were pretty common in the Bible.

    Take divorce are re-marriage for example. Both the Old and New Testaments are quite explicit that re-marriage after a divorce (or even the death of a spouse) is Adultery (one of the top ten sins), and was, unlike homosexuality, actually addressed by Jesus…very clearly. Ask these conservatives how it is that this explicit rule got changed for Christians today, and the mental gymnastics they pull out to explain that away are just startling. But God’s word was clear and absolute and eternal about homosexuality. Because, of course, straight white people don’t engage in homosexuality (except after a lot of beer), but they do, sometimes, want to get a divorce. Even the Catholic Church, which does officially reject divorce and re-marriage, mostly turns a blind eye, and of course has come up with ways, usually involving money, to get around the prohibition. Funny how that works.

    And the wedding industry people have the worst arguments possible. For God’s sake, the only time I know the person who baked the cake “participating” in the ceremony is if they happen to be friends or family of the couple, and are, separately invited to the wedding. Otherwise, they generally show up sometime before to unload a cake for a party to be held after a ceremony (which may or may not be religious in nature). I’ve never been to a wedding where the cake was in the “Sanctuary.” If a wedding photographer is doing a great job, they’re hardly noticed except for lining up all those various collections of family members AFTER THE CEREMONY.

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  6. JaneE says:

    Why is there such an inverse relationship between saying how much you love Jesus and actually practicing his teaching? Or do they really want people to call them in the middle of the night and condemn their choice of sexual partners?

  7. rmthunter says:

    Very nice, and pretty much what I was going to say, but in much more detail.

    Let me just add, as a footnote to your last comment, that we’re talking about people who simply do not recognize the validity of any other point of view, and who believe “separation of church and state” means that the state cannot set any limits on their religious rights, which occupy every nook and cranny of daily life, including their “right” to impose their beliefs on everyone else.

  8. It is my religious freedom that anyone employing me give me a paycheck and I don’t have to work. I want my religious freedom!

  9. BeccaM says:

    “Appeal to irrefutable authority.” It’s a well-known rhetorically dishonest debating technique where you are not allowed to reason with someone about the validity of their position, because they point to something, some belief, which circularly grants them permission to do, say, or believe anything. Even when those beliefs are demonstrably false.

    Take, for example, conservative fundamentalist Christian beliefs about contraception. They claim (1) it’s morally wrong altogether and (2) it’s wrong in part because contraceptives cause abortions. This one is an actual two-fer. The ‘morally wrong’ part is justified by referring to a very specific interpretation of Christian beliefs, even though the book referred to as supporting evidence has many examples of their supreme deity ordering pregnant women, babies, and children to be slaughtered. And the supposed reason for judging contraception as morally defective is actually contrary to the reality of what these medications and devices do.

    It’s been the same with respect to same-sex marriage (which technically these days is just marriage that happens to be between two people of the same gender). The fundamentalists again claim being gay is morally wrong and furthermore that it is wrong because their supposedly infallible book says it is. Through scientific advances, we now know sexuality and even gender identity are not dichotomies and they are not chosen. But for some reason, the Christian supremacists are allowed to bring “it’s a lifestyle choice” to the table. And also not to be challenged whenever they try to claim that marriage as practiced now in First World nations is exactly as it’s been for thousands of years–even though their own holy book unambiguously shows it hasn’t. Polygyny and the ownership of human women was the norm back then and women were additionally banned from remarrying if their husband-owners decided to divorce (aka ‘discard’) them.

    However, it should be noted I’m talking about just one particular ancient Middle Eastern culture, as expressed in several different competing religions. The Romans, on the other hand, were among the earliest adopters of monogamy in the region, and by time this Jesus fellow allegedly existed, the peoples they’d conquered were already fast adopting the cultural practices and beliefs of their rulers.

    Fifty years ago, the previous generation of Christian supremacists were citing the same kinds of religiously-motivated reasons as to why they didn’t want to have to respect mixed-race marriages. They also pointed to their beliefs as to why they should be allowed to discriminate against anybody who wasn’t white and why they felt segregation was appropriate and necessary. They even cited chapter and verse from their Bible, things like “God put different races on different continents, so that’s why ‘mixing’ is wrong.”

    These xenophobic impulses aren’t going to change. A group of people who have long been accustomed to special deference and privilege — privilege they used often to discriminate against those they don’t like, whatever the reason — are complaining because they’re being told there are now new limits to what they can do.

    Like I said, half a century ago, it was “I don’t want that n***** in my store.” Now it’s “I don’t want those f***** in my store.” Or being able to deny employment or housing or any of the hundreds of ways the Christian supremacists want the freedom and privilege to make other people’s lives miserable. It’s a sad way to be, but they really have nothing other than wanting the freedom to hate who they hate and to oppress who they want to oppress. To deliberately inflict emotional and social pain on other people — and then to claim it’s not something a bad person of malign intent would do to another human being.

    As for the question you raise, Jon, it’s not just employment discrimination. They just want their rights to supersede the rights of others, without question, because this is a privilege they’re used to having.

  10. nicho says:

    But I thought it was illegal to discriminate based on religion. If a Christian can fire me for not following their religious beliefs, why can’t I fire a Christian who doesn’t follow my religious beliefs?

  11. UncleBucky says:

    The basic point in the case was this. They had the icks and looked for an excuse. A nice minister, elder or super-christianist gave them the excuse and a script and then bam bam bam.

    Thus: “…religion is providing cover for what in a secular context would be considered odious.”

    It’s too easy. All the rest is whipped cream and powdered sugar.

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