Wednesday, January 7, 2004
Ninth Circuit Upholds Firing for Posting Anti-Gay Messages
Court Rejects Worker’s Claim of Discrimination Based on Religious Beliefs
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
A Hewlett-Packard employee fired for posting scriptural passages condemning homosexuality in his work cubicle was not discriminated against because of his religious beliefs, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
Judge Stephen Reinhardt said a U.S. magistrate judge in Idaho properly granted summary judgment against Richard D. Peterson in his religious discrimination action under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Peterson conceded the messages he posted were intended to be “hurtful” to gay Hewlett-Packard employees, Reinhardt said, and they violated the company’s policy prohibiting harassment.
Peterson’s disparate treatment claim failed because he was unable to surmount the hurdle of demonstrating that any similarly situated employees who were not devout Christians were treated differently, Reinhardt said. The jurist explained that Peterson’s claim the company should have accommodated his religious convictions also failed, since the only accommodations the employee was willing to accept would have unduly burdened Hewlett-Packard.
Peterson posted the messages, which were in his cubicle but printed in type large enough to be read by other employees, after Hewlett-Packard began a diversity tolerance campaign. The campaign used posters with pictures of individual Hewlett-Packard employees captioned “Black,” “Blonde,” “Old,” “Gay,” or “Hispanic.”
Religious Duty Cited
Peterson said his religious duty “to expose evil when confronted with sin” required him to respond to the “Gay” poster. Among the scriptural passages he posted was Leviticus 20:13: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be put upon them.”
Hewlett-Packard managers met with Peterson and advised him that his messages violated a company policy barring “comments or conduct relating to a person’s race, gender, religion, disability, age, sexual orientation, or ethnic background that fail to respect the dignity and feeling of the individual.” But Peterson would not agree to stop posting them unless the “Gay” poster was also removed, and the company eventually fired him.
Reinhardt rejected Peterson’s argument that the diversity campaign targeted Christian employees or sought to promote homosexuality.
“Peterson may be correct that the campaign devoted special attention to combating prejudice against homosexuality, but such an emphasis is in no manner unlawful,” the judge wrote. “To the contrary, Hewlett-Packard’s efforts to eradicate discrimination against homosexuals in its workplace were entirely consistent with the goals and objectives of our civil rights statutes generally.”
Letter to Newspaper
The company, he noted, did not object to a letter Peterson wrote which was published by the Idaho Statesman newspaper, in which he called the diversity campaign a “platform to promote the homosexual agenda,” nor did it seek to prevent him from parking his car, which bore a bumper sticker with the legend “Sodomy is Not a Family Value,” in the company parking lot.
“All that the managers did was explain Hewlett-Packard’s diversity program to Peterson and ask him to treat his co-workers with respect,” Reinhardt declared. “They simply requested that he remove the posters and not violate the company’s harassment policy—a policy that was uniformly applied to all employees.”
The judge observed that Peterson admitted his postings were intended to be “hurtful so that people would repent (change their actions) and experience the joys of being saved.” He was unable to point to any other employees who were permitted to post similarly hurtful messages, Reinhardt said.
“Peterson offered no evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, that would support a reasonable inference that his termination was the result of disparate treatment on account of religion,” the judge declared. “Viewing the record in the light most favorable to Peterson, it is evident that he was discharged, not because of his religious beliefs, but because he violated the company’s harassment policy by attempting to generate a hostile and intolerant work environment and because he was insubordinate in that he repeatedly disregarded the company’s instructions to remove the demeaning and degrading postings from his cubicle.”
Turning to Peterson’s claim the company should have accommodated his religious beliefs instead of firing him, Reinhardt noted that such a claim requires a showing of a bona fide religious belief, the practice of which conflicts with an employment duty.
“[W]e seriously doubt that the doctrines to which Peterson professes allegiance compel any employee to engage in either expressive or physical activity designed to hurt or harass one’s fellow employees,” the judge wrote.
But even assuming such a showing, Reinhardt said, Hewlett-Packard could not be required to make either of the accommodations Peterson indicated he would accept—permitting him to post his scriptural messages or eliminating references to homosexuality from the workplace diversity campaign.
“Either choice would have created undue hardship for Hewlett-Packard because it would have inhibited its efforts to attract and retain a qualified, diverse workforce, which the company reasonably views as vital to its commercial success; thus, neither provides a reasonable accommodation,” the judge declared.
Judges William A. Fletcher and Ronald M. Gould concurred.
Boise lawyer Christ T. Troupis, who argued Peterson’s case on appeal, said the court’s ruling was “not overly surprising.”
“The court was extremely hostile to our position on freedom of expression in the workplace.”
Troupis said the Ninth Circuit panel was “penalizing my client for what his thoughts were.” Noting that Peterson posted only Biblical verses and never spoke with any of his coworkers about his views, the attorney declared:
“They were either saying that the words used in the Bible alone are offensive and hurtful and therefore prohibited, or that his thoughts were offensive and hurtful, and therefore prohibited. They’re either the thought police or they’re prohibiting any religious expression whatsoever in the workplace.”
The case is Peterson v. Hewlett-Packard Co., 01-35795.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company