Woman Loses Suit After Being Fired by Wal-Mart for Anti-Gay Diatribe

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday April 5, 2011

A woman who took Wal-Mart to court after being fired from a Joliet, Illinois outlet for harassing fellow employees with an anti-gay screed claims, in effect, that her religious convictions confer upon her a right to subject others to abusive language. The courts, however, disagree.

The US Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit issued a March 30 verdict that upheld the ruling of a lower court, which had found against former Wal-Mart employee Tanisha Matthews, reported Gay City News in an April 4 article.

Matthews, an Apostolic Christian with anti-gay views, had worked for the retail chain as a stocker. Her shift took place after hours. One night during a break, Matthews and several co-workers got into an argument about whether or not gays were destined to go to Hell.

"In September 2005, during a break in the overnight shift, Matthews took part in a conversation about God and homosexuality," the court's ruling read. "The next day an employee informed a manager that Matthews had made inappropriate comments about gays to a gay employee named Amy.

"Over the next three months, Wal-Mart investigated the incident by interviewing and obtaining statements from employees who were present during the conversation," the ruling continued. "In her statement, Amy reported that Matthews was 'screaming over her' that God does not accept gays, they should not 'be on earth,' and they will 'go to hell' because they are not 'right in the head.' Five other employees confirmed that Matthews had said that gays are sinners and are going to hell."

Matthews was fired for violating the retail chain's non-harassment policy, the ruling noted. "This policy, which Matthews was aware of at the time of the incident, prohibits employees from engaging in conduct that could reasonably be interpreted as harassment based on an individual's status, including sexual orientation, and provides that employees who violate the policy will receive 'coaching and/or other discipline, up to and including termination.' "

Matthews went to court, depicting her termination as an act of anti-Christian persecution, and claiming that Wal-Mart had broken the law, specifically the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination on the grounds of a person's faith.

The first court that heard the case issued a summary judgment in Wal-Mart's favor, since there was no evidence that Matthews had suffered discriminatory treatment. The appeals court agreed, ruling that Matthews had been fired for breaking company rules regarding harassment of fellow employees, and not because of her faith or faith-based views.

"Wal-Mart fired her because she violated company policy when she harassed a co-worker, not because of her beliefs," the court ruled, "and employers need not relieve workers from complying with neutral workplace rules as a religious accommodation if it would create an undue hardship."

As for Matthews having complained that the other employees involved in the argument were not also fired, the appeals court noted that Matthews alone had remarked on "someone's individual status, homosexuality or race."

"Some religious groups have been working very hard to carve out protection under civil rights laws for employees who want to act out their religious views in the workplace, regardless of whether that adversely affects their employers' businesses," the Gay City News article reported.

"The courts have generally stood firm, at least regarding private sector workplaces, for the proposition that the employer, not the employee, is entitled to set the tone on the job."

Wal-Mart faces another, much larger, legal situation in the form of a class action lawsuit in which female employees and former employees claim that the retail giant has systematically placed women under a glass ceiling. The United States Supreme Court recently heard arguments in the case.

Conservatives expect that the Supreme Court will find for Wal-Mart in that case as well. Anti-gay religious website OneNewsNow reported in an April 4 article that Pacific Justice Institute attorney Kevin Snider predicted that the court would rule against the plaintiffs because a class-action suit is one in which the plaintiffs have some specific commonality, "and in this instance, the fact that they're women is not enough of a similarity. When you have an employment situation, you are going to have numerous variables--and courts simply don't like that."

Added Snider, "The concern is that if you loosen the rules on class action, you could open the floodgates and courts turn into public policy forums; and that's not the appropriate role of the courts."

The Pacific Justice Institute describes itself as "a non-profit 501(c)(3) legal defense organization specializing in the defense of religious freedom, parental rights, and other civil liberties."

Another group that sought, and failed, to bring a class action suit against the retail giant were janitors who were working the U.S. illegally as undocumented aliens. The janitors claimed that they were locked in stores and forced to work overtime hours without pay.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.