Wednesday, November 17, 2010

When Religion Interfers With a Contract

Sheila Matthews
Imagine the following scenario. You hire someone to work for you doing a very specific job. They are paid quite well to perform the job but, after they are hired, they inform you that due to their own religious sentiments they will refuse to perform the job in certain circumstance.

Assume they tell you that their religious beliefs clearly state that Jews killed Jesus and are a cursed people. This employee will therefore refuse to perform their job when the customer in question is Jewish. They will simply "abstain" from doing the job. You balk at this. You have policies where all customers, whether Jewish or not, are treated the same as all other customers. This policy was known when the employee took the job. She insists that because Jews are a minority, and maybe 1 in 20 customers is Jewish, that you should simply allow her to refuse to do the work because it doesn't happen that often.

You tell her that she is required to do the job for which she was hired and that if she refuses you will have to let her go. You are rather appalled that she is so openly bigoted and you don't think you should surrender to her prejudices, whether they are religiously inspired or not. So you let her go. And the next thing you know she is screaming that she is a victim and that you are a bigot discriminating against her on the grounds of her religion.

What do you think of this situation?

Now, let us take this scenario and see how it applies to the real case.

Sheila Matthews was hired by the Northamptonshire County Council in England as a medical adviser to an adoption panel that evaluated couples seeking to adopt. The advisers voted on whether to allow adoption or not. Matthews is a fundamentalist Christian and had an automatic hostile view toward any gay couple seeking to adopt. This prejudice made it impossible for her to evaluate adoptions in cases where gay couples were involved because her religion told her they were automatically disqualified. But the county, which was handling the adoptions, was not a religious body enforcing theology. It was a governmental body that handled adoptions and which had an obligation to treat all taxpayers, who are coerced to pay for it, equally.

Matthews was happy to "compromise." Her compromise was that she would simply refuse to do her job when gay couples were involved. Given that she was unwilling to do her job, the agency for which she worked let her go. And, of course, she immediately got a legal group that works with fundamentalists to file a law suit claiming that she was the victim of discrimination due to religion.

She complained: "The anger I feel is not only for me but for lots of others people of faith who feel they have to choose between their beliefs and their job."

She has an absolute right to her faith. What she doesn't have a right to, is that job. If she is unwilling to perform the job for which she was hired, because of her religious views, then she should not have applied for the job.

In recent years many fundamentalists have used this sort of logic in disputes with employers. They act in a manner that interferes with their job, they claim the motivation for their actions is their religion, therefore anyone unwilling to let them set employment terms based on their theology is a bigot.

If Matthews were refused a position merely because she is a Christian that would be discrimination on the basis of religion. And no government body should be allowed to discriminate in that manner. But that is NOT what happened in her case. Instead, she wanted to be excused from doing her job anytime a gay couple were involved. She still wanted the $115,000 she was being paid for her position, she just didn't feel that she should fulfill the labor contract when it came to people that her religion told her were inferior. Matthews was free to believe anything she wanted but in her role as an employee she is not free to act anyway she wants.

An employee, even one who works for a government body, is not acting on her own behalf. She is acting on behalf of her employer. I absolutely defend the right of private people to refuse to associate with people they dislike, even when I think their dislike is irrational and bigoted. But, the right to act  ends when she is acting as an employee of someone else. As an agent of the employer she is obligated to act according to the employer's wishes. An employer purchases the right to direct an employee to act in certain ways. If the employee does not wish to follow the contract she should not take the job. If she take the job, and then refuse to fulfill the contract the employer has a right to dismiss her.

This seems to be something the Christian Legal Centre in England, where this case is taking place, doesn't seem to understand.

Your religious beliefs, or lack of them, do not give you a right to change labor contracts after you were hired. All labor contracts are exchanges where you exchange some of your rights in exchange for payment. For instance, you have a right to leisure and sleep, but not at work. You have the right to preach religion to people for hours at end, but not at work. You have the right to walk around the room naked, but not at work. When you take a job you exchange some freedoms you have for wages. You agree to allow the employer to "hire" you, which means to insist you act in a certain way. Because you have given up some of your rights you are compensated in the form of payments. You can't have it both ways. You can't take the pay for giving up some of your freedoms while simultaneously insisting that you must be free to act.

We should also be clear that Matthews was really the one who terminated the labor contract. When she refused to fulfill the terms of the contract, by refusing to work with gay couples according to the terms her employer has set, she canceled any labor contract that existed. If you buy a car, and the dealer refuses to deliver it, they don't have the right to keep insisting you make payments on the vehicle. If you take a job, but you refuse to deliver on it, then you don't have the right to insist that your employer keep you on staff as if you had performed the job properly.

It would not matter if gay couples were one in 20 of the customers or one in 20,000. As much as Matthews and her fundamentalist friends at the Christian Legal Centre want to pretend, this is not a case about her religious beliefs. It is a case about her refusing to fulfill the contract that she signed and that she was being paid to perform.

Religious beliefs are a very peculiar form of assertions. They are assertions that claim very great things for themselves but which also demand to be free of scrutiny or challenge. Given the nature of religious beliefs anyone can claim anything and assert it is religious in nature. There are sects who preach that whites are God's chosen people and that blacks are beasts of the field and Jews are the literal seed of Satan. It is their right to believe this but none of these people have the right to refuse to serve blacks or Jews when they are working for someone else, who doesn't share their prejudices.

Were this a private adoption agency, and one which shared the gospel viewpoint of this woman, she would be free to act according to her religion. She does not have that right with an employer who doesn't share that viewpoint. And, given the nature of government funding, which takes from people indiscriminately, then government agencies have to treat all taxpayers the same, even taxpayers that Matthrews sees as being sinners.

The CLC says it "just isn't right" that Matthews was dismissed "just because" of her religious beliefs. She wasn't. She was free to hold that religious belief and her job. But what she wasn't free to do was use her religious belief as an excuse for refusing to perform the job that she was hired to do.

A government agency, which takes from taxpayers indiscriminately, can not perform its services only for groups favored by certain religions. It has to treat all taxpayers similarly. Because private entities are not, or should not, be funded by tax funds, they ought to have more leeway.

You may remember how the National Organization for (sic) Marriage ran commercials about adoption in Massachusetts. The commercials in questions stretched the truth to the breaking point. They claimed that Catholic Charities was "forced" to shut down because it refused to work with gay people. NOM simply lied. Gay marriage equality did not force the charity to end adoption. The charity decided to end adoptions because it was no longer being funded by the taxpayers. Catholic Charities previously did adoptions with funds given to them by the state. The state said that they had to treat gay couples equally if they wanted access to the pocketbooks of the taxpayers. Catholic Charities wanted the rights of being a "private" agency while getting funding from the state.

A local Mormon adoption agency, which is just as anti-gay as the Catholic one, remained in business undisturbed. It wasn't being funded by taxpayers and was free to act in a prejudicial manner against gays if they wished—and they most certainly wished to do so. The Catholics only refused to do the job when they were no longer promised subsidies from the State.

Private adoptions agencies that wish to discriminate have to equally discriminate when it comes to funding. Since taxes are imposed on all groups agencies that wish to be recipients of those funds ought to treat all taxpayers equally when it comes to the services they provide. If they are unwilling to do that, then ought not be recipients of the funding. If you wish to deny service to some people then you can't force them to pay for what they are not receiving. When groups or individuals take funding they are obligated to do the job for which they were hired. Religion is not an excuse for taking the payments, without providing the services. This is a matter of labor contracts, not one of religious freedom. If one's religious beliefs are such that they make you unable to perform certain jobs then don't apply for those jobs. If you do, and you refuse to do them, and then you are fired, at least have the commonse sense to shut up and don't pretend you are the victim of religious discrimination.

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