Rev. Emily C. Heath

Drawing the Line: LGBT Rights & Religious Freedom at Work

Filed By Rev. Emily C. Heath | August 21, 2011 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: freedom of speech, marriage equality, New York, religion, religion vs work, religious beliefs, religious faith, religious right, schools

The Huffington Post featured a story on Friday about Jerry Buell, an award winning high school teacher from Mt. Dora, Florida. According to the article, Buell reacted to the recent decision in Jesus-teacher.jpgNew York to allow equal marriage by ranting on Facebook about how wrong it was. Buell wrote:

I'm watching the news, eating dinner, when the story about New York okaying same sex unions came on and I almost threw up. If they want to call it a union, go ahead. But don't insult a man and woman's marriage by throwing it in the same cesspool as same-sex whatever! God will not be mocked. When did this sin become acceptable???"

In the aftermath, the Post reports, Osceola County school officials suspended Buell for "violation of the school's social media policy".

Now I don't think Buell has the first clue what a loving God would feel about equal civil marriage. I also think Buell, despite his role as a social studies teacher, also doesn't understand that American laws are not dictated by fundamentalist Christian religious interpretations. I think his brand of Christianity is far from faithful to the loving Christ of the Gospel.

But that's beside the point. Because despite my disapproval of his religious views, I find myself troubled by Buell's suspension.

Now, I am generally the first person to remind people that "freedom of speech" is not the same as "freedom from the consequences of that speech". You can't say something asinine and then call "free speech" like some sort of childish "not it". You may have freedom of speech to say something astonishingly ignorant, but that means the next guy has freedom of speech to tell you how ignorant you truly are.

And yet I feel, social media policy aside, uncomfortable suspending someone for expressing his religious belief outside of his work setting.

I grew up in Central Florida, not too far from Mt. Dora. I don't remember the schools I attended as being gay friendly in the slightest. Had Facebook been around when I was in school, I can imagine the gay teachers and their allies that I knew being fired for talking about it online. It doesn't matter that they didn't bring it into work. No one would have cared whether they were doing their job or not. All they would have focused on was the concern that maybe their sexual orientation meant they couldn't.

In some ways it's the same with Buell. The focus seems to be on his religious beliefs and whether or not he has the right to express them outside of work and still do his job. He is not, so far as I'm aware, bringing his religious views into the classroom or imposing them on students. (That would change this discussion completely.) He is not asking for religious accommodations at work. He was simply expressing, away from his work setting, his religious beliefs. He may not have done so in an elegant manner, but inelegance is not a crime.

Now, before the inevitable argument that this opens up the workplace to religious extremism, I want to draw a distinction between Buell's case and those of the New York town clerks who state their faith does not allow them to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples.

The difference with the clerks is that they are directly refusing to do their job. They are mandated to provide marriage licenses for all of the couples who come to them, and yet they will not do so. To me, that is more than adequate grounds for firing. If your faith keeps you from doing your job, I believe you have to resign.

For example, several years ago I nearly applied for a position as a prison chaplain. In the application process it became clear that I would potentially have to participate in executions. My religious belief is that capital punishment is wrong. So, instead of asking that I be given a religious exemption, and that the job be tailored to my beliefs, I instead declined to apply.

And this is where the question of religious freedom intersects with workplace expectations. Where do we draw the line? Do we draw it to exclude someone like me who refuses to participate in executions? I think that is justified. Do we do it with town clerks who feel they cannot serve all citizens? Again, I believe that is justified. But, do we do it with a teacher who expresses his religious views outside of the classroom? That's where things get tricky.

I am personally just as disgusted with Buell's statement as he seems to be by equal marriage. I spent a week in the Capitol in Albany lobbying for equal marriage because I believe that's what my faith teaches me to do. I listened to people spew his brand of ignorance day in and day out. Each night when I tried to sleep I heard it ringing in my ears.

And yet, I give thanks that we live in a place where those protesters had the right to express their faith beliefs and I had the right to express mine. Just like Buell, I would never bring my faith beliefs inside of a public school classroom. But were I a teacher expressing them on Facebook, I hope I wouldn't lose my job either.

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Author's note (10:50pm 8/21/2011): New information has come out that now suggests Buell had students added as "friends" on his Facebook page. To me this changes the discussion somewhat. Sharing these opinions with students is crossing the line, and it means he did bring these views into his work life. Had he not done so, however, where should the line have been drawn?

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Lauren Ritchie writes in the Orlando Sentinal, But Lake County school district officials got a written complaint from a 2002 Mount Dora graduate asking them to consider Buell's comments and tone during a July 25 Facebook exchange that involved several students. Officials decided to move Buell to an administrative spot while they look into the matter."

If his current students were engaged in the discussion, he was bringing it into the classroom.

This has nothing whatsoever to with freedom of religion. Freedom of speech yes, but certainly not religion

Good discussion. IMO if anyone is working for the goverment in any capacity they should understand that we all don't see eye to eye on things all of the time. That our great nation is based upon certian freedoms. Freedom of speech, relegion and association are all in the consititution and I like to think we all support those rights.
IF this teacher used his voice on a street corner or a social media site to express his relegious views to me thats ok. Everyone gets to rant in this nation. Expressing his views to his students in class? If he did that then I would hold him accountable 110% and drag his ass thru glass. Voicing his views in public? I fully support his rights to be a bigot in public and I actually perfer public bigots to the hooded ones. It doesn't mean I like them, I just support anyone's rights to voice their views in public spaces and to live thier lives as they want too. Now should this kind of thing be allowed by the school admin in an action against this person if its found out he's been harassing GLBT students? Hell yes. Because lets face it, if we advocated firing everyone who's views were not the same as our own then pretty soon no one would have a job.

Being a gay person is not a choice, one's religious capacity is. There are no rules or standards in life that require using that religion to certain degrees.
As for bringing his views to work. Well a gay person brings their orientation to work, but who does it HURT?
We cannot diminish the influence or impact of anti gay sentiment on children in schools. There are gay children who have suffered from assault and threat, and committed suicide because of it.
One can reasonably assume that this teacher might offer no safe haven or support. He might even out a student to anti gay parents. He's certainly someone who poses that risk to a student.

Religious freedom, like free speech, requires RESPONSIBILITY. And when religious speech is a liability or a risk of it, to a student or the school, this guy doesn't have a right to his job.
And those who use their religious belief to the extent they do beyond mere disagreement and opinion, DO create and environment that endangers young people. THAT is in evidence.

Why shouldn't a person of avowed religious beliefs be put on notice when the ARE a liability?
And there is no escaping the fact that they ARE.
It's also very hypocritical and contradictory, that the same people who insist they are only subject to God's laws, hide behind the very man made Constitution and Bill of Rights when their liability rears it's head.

They aren't even utilizing said religious beliefs and actions consistently, nor fairly.
Contraception is taboo in just about every faith community. Yet, it's a necessary and healthy option for most people. And everyone who wants to use it, should have that choice.
A religious person can't demand that the government keep that option from others, nor call it a threat to their religious freedom or rights if others choose to use it.
THAT is the point.
Some people are all over the place in wanting all the freedoms, rights and protections for themselves and damn who they harm in the process. Apparently they are fine with human sacrifice as long as they don't have to make any at all.

IIRC, there were students involved in that Facebook exchange. So yes, he was bringing his private views into a classroom situation.

If a teacher has students with access to their social media page, they need to act professionally there as well. If not, then professional consequences are appropriate, IMO.

Tall Stacey | August 21, 2011 9:48 PM

My issue is not with his opinions, he is entitled to them however ugly they may be, and not with his stating them, he has that right out of the workplace as well. My issue is his choice to “friend” his students on Facebook. I believe that he has crossed a professional line of teachers fraternizing with the students under their tutelage. Aside from the implications of predation,(beware those who protest too much!) it would seem to undermine his stature as a teacher. Familiarity of a teacher with student fosters discriminatory treatment, we would not tolerate his taking a few kids out for pizza after school & voicing those opinions in that environment, I think it no less repulsive here. I think he crossed the line & needs to be removed. It has nothing to do with religion, it is a matter of professional responsibility.

Emily, you are basing your comments only with the limited information you have read in media reports. The fact is that Buell's Facebook comments have become a red flag of what happens in his classroom. In the course of the school board's ongoing investigation, students are coming forward and sharing what happens in Jerry Buell's classroom. His syllabus is filled with religious language. He regularly preaches his fundamentalist Christianity to students in his social studies classes. One day in class, he joked that if gays want to be in the military they should march to the front of the line.

A large number of the over 700 Facebook friends that Buell "friended" are current students. He had his settings such that not only his friends could read his rants, but also the "friends of friends."

His Facebook positing of June 12, 2011 at 10:15 pm read:

"Anybody else see where Lady Gaga performed "Born This Way" at a homo-rights rally in Rome? Pure and unmitigated defiance of the laws of God. It is a sign of our times and culture when we pay more attention to a total flake instead of the Word of God. Don't argue w/ me, the Creator has set the rules."

He sees himself as some kind of soldier for Christ first and a teacher second. That was even part of his his official bio on the school website until the school purged it in wake of this scandal.

If it be true that he is teaching and preaching his religious fundamentalism in the classroom, then fire him. If his religious comments are limited to the Facebook page, then I agree with Emily: that is reason neither for suspension nor for censorship. But he must also be prepared for rebuttal.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | August 22, 2011 3:53 AM

The almost universal anti-GLBT bigotry of religious sects, groups and cults is one of the prime motivators of the violence, discrimination and harassment aimed at our communities. The other is bigotry from political misleaders and their allies and it's mainly focused on denial of same sex marriage rights and blocking passage of federal anti-discrimination laws.

Descriptions of LGBT folks as sinners - evil, degenerate, depraved - undeserving of full civil rights and all their other garbage is a direct cause of violence, discrimination and harassment and should be legally suppressed as it is in more civilized countries.

We should continue to press for the end of tax breaks for cults, sects and other religious groups and for an end to subsidies through the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which should be disbanded and its staff investigated on charges of misuse of public funds and bribery.

We should continue to press for the arrests of cult and sect leaders who rape children and women and of those who abet and enable them. We should demand the extradition of der papenfuehrer to face charges of being a conspirator and accomplice to thousands of criminal rapes. A similar approach should be taken with other christer groups, islamists and judaists who try to hush up cases of rape and abuse.

Our efforts to pass anti-discrimination and civil rights laws should specifically include language that allows the prosecution of cults and sects when they promote violence and discrimination.

Rev. Emily,
Here is my problem with your argument. Let's say he had posted on Facebook that blacks are inferior to white with no religious context. Now let's say he posted that blacks were inferior to whites because they have the mark of Cain and as such are inferior. Do you feel since one is not a religious argument and one is that we should overlook the one and not the other. Or should we overlook both and hope that a teacher can overlook his biases to black students in the classroom?

If you have ever worked for the Federal Government or as a contractor to one of its agencies, you well know that your so-called freedom of speech is over. You have NO RIGHT to public expression of opinions, in or out of work, that have not been reviewed and approved by the designated government authority.

While this dictum is not generally visible in state governments, but perhaps it ought to be. A school teacher forfeits the "moral right" of free speech and/or free expression of religion when they take on the job of educating kids to government standards.

I am not pushing this as right or wrong. it is what it is. Perhaps it will be better in the future.

By the way, the "mark of Cain" traditionally designates the non-Hebrew descendants of Adam OR Eve, but not both (a sign of apartheid from the Hebrew descendants of both Adam AND Eve who concocted the creationist bullshit in the first place). Where are they now? All over the world. They include the non-Hebrew Semites and are heavily interbred into the rest of humanity, as are the descendants of the ancient Hebrews, with whom they ruthlessly competed for centuries. Get over it.

Like all civil service employees, public school teachers voluntarily surrender the right to express their political and religious views (other than voting) while on duty and in some cases off duty. This has been the rule for more than a century because it is recognized that the official actions of a state employee are explicitly backed by the sovereign authority of the government, and the unofficial actions of a sufficiently high-ranking state employee are still tacitly backed by that authority.

As such, I 100% support not only immediately firing, but permanently blacklisting any school teacher who makes any public expression of a bigoted point of view even when off duty, including bigotry motivated by religious beliefs rather than personal animus.

Religion is a conscious choice, it is not immutable. As a choice, religion does not trump immutable characteristics and/or disabilities in civil rights disputes. People are free and welcome to their religious beliefs, but they are not free and welcome to foist them upon the lives of others – that constitutes bigotry at best, and outright discrimination at worst. In the workplace, and more so in the offices of government, religious beliefs have no place at all. Nor do the views of any particular religion's followers have a place in the sectarian, civil, or governmental workplace. You have the right to have religion, or to not have a religion – you do NOT have the right to force your religion's dogma upon other people.

“With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
New York Times, April 20, 1999, physicist Steven Weinberg

“The more I study religions the more I am convinced that man never worshipped anything but himself.” - Sir Richard Francis Burton

“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” - author Sinclair Lewis

I think that the proper exclusion of religious hatred from the public sphere is succinctly summarized by what my supervisor at American Medical Response told us during training, "You can believe whatever you want, but you leave your personal beliefs at the door when you wear the uniform. We expect you to treat every single patient with the exact same courtesy and professionalism, period. If you can't do that, you don't belong here."

Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | August 23, 2011 6:30 AM

To sum up what seems to have been written above, with the exception of Emily's rational observation that as in most things, the rights and freedoms involved are not nearly as simplistic as many would wish: "If a teacher expresses a viewpoint that I don't agree with, especially if I can somehow term it 'religious', haul them away to the dungeon. If the teacher expresses a viewpoint that I agree with, more power to them."

Look, folks, I find what the teacher has said pretty unacceptable. But what if a teacher in the same circumstances would have said to his or her students by whatever means: "What people who call themselves followers of Christ are doing to gay and lesbian people is dispicable, and such so-called Christians ought not be permitted any voice in the public square?" Should those beliefs be "checked at the door"? If so why, if not, why not? What word changes might make the situation different?

And I have still not gotten an answer on why when we classify it as "religious" speech that somehow it gets a pass. If a person says that gay people are vile and wicked but don't use religious arguments does it make that speech worse while those who couch it religious language some how get a pass? Why is that? Fred Phelps uses religious views to back his beliefs.
I think with the teacher it all comes down to do the views expressed show a particular bias to a set of students. In your above example I'd have issue because it could show bias to Christian students. At the least it puts up a wall of suspicion and I think there needs to be a hard look to see if these bias spill out in the classroom either overtly or covertly.

Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | August 23, 2011 8:11 AM

Agree, Tim. What makes something "religious" or not seems to be highly subjective and the lines of demarcation are far from solid. I've seen some commentary on Andrew Sullivan's blog recently on the degree to which Martin Luther King was a "Christionist". He certainly framed the black civil rights issue in terms of his personal faith in Jesus Christ. Should a black (or any race/ethnicity for that matter) teacher be able to express support fot that view without fear of retribution?

One answer is typically: OK to teach "about" religion or the influence of religion on a particular historic figures life, but not OK to "teach religion". On paper that sounds pretty good. In reality that's why we have all the heat and light that we do in this particular areas of the cultural wars.

Sorry, but I actually value the lives and well being of the GBLT kids in his classroom than on his previous right to demean and dehumanise them.

It's sad that the lives of GBLT kids is so devalued or that the shining wonder of religious bigotry is so upheld in the eyes of so many - including bigot apologists among ourselves - that this priority is even challenged.

Emily, perhaps you may want to consider writing a new commentary. Here's a link to a blog with some additional information about this harmful man:

This is information that only came out because of the whole Facebook incident. His Facebook rant is proving to be only the tip of the iceberg.

Seeingeyegrrl | August 27, 2011 12:31 PM

Lots of valid points already made here. I just think 1) that folks who 'rant' on social media are probably likely (since it is obvious how widespread it is) to be just as likely to rant in person, or at work. 2) Teachers and people in positions of authority, need to be more careful of their 'sharing' due to the added impact their words carry. Especially with all the issues with bullying and teen suicides....just my 2 cents

Traditionally, media reporters have no "freedom of speech" either in the workplace or in the community. Most newspapers have work rules that forbid you to have any kind of public political involvement because you are supposed to give the appearance of "neutrality" at all times. This custom has gotten blurry with the rise of blogging. I am happy to be retired now and can be as political as I want to be. In this teacher's case, if he is using Facebook to be an after-work "friend" to his students (questionable practice) he is setting himself up as a de-facto role model. His FB postings carry the same weight as his classroom lectures. After mocking gay families, his next step could be to mock kids born "illegitimate" which is nearly half of all births these days. If he wants to preach his religious views, he should teach at a religious school.