When the Religious Freedom of an Institution is Protected over the Civil Rights of Individuals: Part I
The following begins a series of blogs about my termination as a Social Worker from The Salvation Army, yesterday, Monday the 23rd of July 2012. After being asked to sign an employee handbook that had some passages I was highly concerned about, I asked what would happen if I was not to sign it- or not to sign off on parts of the book until further clarification. I was informed that if someone did not sign their employee handbook, their job would be highly considered, and most likely terminated. I got scared, and signed the handbook. After this occurred, I started to feel very anxious, feeling as though I betrayed my integrity. Last Monday, I had an experience at another local social services agency which made me very uncomfortable. These two things were the catalyst for me writing the following letter. According to the handbook’s excerpt on conflict resolution, I went about discussing my concerns in the correct manner. I handed the following letter to my direct supervisors on Friday afternoon. They agreed to discuss the letter and meet with me at 10am yesterday. I was worried all weekend, and was terrified that I was going to be fired for voicing my concerns. I was surprised to be met with the compassion and understanding my two immediate supervisors, who said not only were they not going to fire me, but that my job was not in jeopardy, and that they respected my integrity and honesty, and were so grateful I was on their team. Less than 8 hours later, my direct supervisors called me into their office, with tears in their eyes and said that word had come in from above them and that they were being forced to fire me and escort me off the property. I will share more in depth details with you to come. But, for now, I wanted to share with you the text of my letter:
Dear Captain Bill and Stephanie
I am writing this in letter form because I am worried that in a meeting, I won’t get to articulate everything I want to say. First, let me say that I love the work I do here. I really enjoy working with my clients and seeing the difference our help can make in their lives, I identify all too well with many of the problems they face. I think this makes me an empathetic caseworker.
I would like to work here for a long time and to grow in this position. A few recent events have made me realize that we need to have a conversation before we proceed further in this employment relationship. I am still very much interested in continuing to work here, there are just some things that I feel need to be addressed.
I have found myself exceptionally anxious in the last week since two things, my meeting with CareNet and signing my employee handbook. I had great pause in signing my handbook and almost didn’t sign it. I wanted some further clarity before I signed it, but I was scared that if I broached this subject that I would get terminated or reprimanded. I am still exceptionally terrified of that. As is, we are not making it financially. If I didn’t have this job, I am not sure what my family would do. However, even the need for employment is not enough to keep me quiet.
Here is the thing. We moved to Burlington from Wisconsin, because we wanted a community where we could completely be ourselves. I feel that way in the community, but not at work. And, given how much time I spend at work, I am not willing to deny who I am, or what I believe. I have serious concerns about a couple of stanzas in the employee handbook, which I have attached and highlighted. These are the reasons I didn’t want to sign.
First, I believe that you and carenet have a misconception about me. I misconception that I haven’t clarified for fear that I could get in trouble. I am not a Christian. I am spiritual, but I am not a Christian. I know you can’t ask that point blank in an interview, but given my work with several Christian organizations, it is a fair assumption that I am Christian. I, for many years called myself a Christian. I now call myself spiritual. There are a multitude of reasons why, but they are not relevant in this letter. I am extremely happy with my spiritual life- probably happier than I have ever been. I am absolutely able to work with people of differing spiritual beliefs.
Terry at CareNet told me that there was an agency in town that she won’t use that helps battered women because it is a “liberal” organization. She told me she could tell me this because I was a “Christian.” I didn’t know what to say so I said nothing. I believe that if a client is in need, it is our job to help them get the best resources available, regardless of the political and religious leanings (or perceived leanings) of that organization. This conversation was exceptionally upsetting for me. But, since I represent the Salvation Army, I did not discuss my views, I simply listened.
I would be shocked if you two are completely surprised by this and what follows, if you have ever seen my car. When I first started working here I was petrified to park in the lot, because all of my bumper stickers are extremely liberal. I used to have Adam park on the street, but I don’t want to live like that-hiding. I am proud of the woman I am, proud of the man my husband is, and so grateful for our belief system and the journey that got us there, and I don’t want to step backwards. For me, it is a step backwards if I agree to a “don’t ask don’t tell” mentality- I can’t do it. I have to be transparent about who I am. I certainly don’t need to be transparent about it to my clients, as it is not relevant to the work I do with them- but I need to be transparent with you for my own sake- for my own integrity.
The stanza in the employee handbook that terrifies me is the stanza about sexual orientation. I gather from it, that as a church you can fire me for acting on my sexual orientation. Even though you can’t be fired in the state of Vermont for being part of the queer community, that stanza reads that as a religious organization, your organizations right to religious freedom trumps my right to having my sexual identity legally protected. I understand that you didn’t write the handbook, but I find the wording in the handbook, of sexual “preference” offensive. I believe wholeheartedly that being anywhere in the LGBTQ community is beautiful, I believe in marriage equality, I believe that our sexual orientation is something we are born with- it is not a choice or a preference.
Most people mistake me for a heterosexual woman; I am married to a man and have a child. I am not. I am a bisexual woman married to a bisexual man, in an open marriage. We love our marriage and wouldn’t trade it for anything. We have come a long way in our marriage and are always growing together. I am an active member in the LGBTQ community. I am a member of the steering committee for one of the largest Vermont Gay social groups. In addition to this, Adam has recently begun work in a drag show, work I wholeheartedly support. I tell you all of this, because this is a small community, and while I believe not a single thing I mentioned makes me less qualified to do my job, I know it is only a matter of time before you or someone sees me at an event. I don’t want to hide.
I love my life outside of work, my friends, my marriage, my writing, my belief system- I love who I am becoming and I have come to far to be silent again. I also love the work I do here and really enjoy working for the two of you- I respect you both as supervisors and as people. I don’t want to loose this job. I think I can do a lot of good here. I believe in what I can do in my position. I do not believe many of the tenants of the Salvation Army Church- but I do believe in social justice, in meeting people’s basic needs, and in The Salvation Army’s mission to “Do the most good.”
I believe I can be an incredible asset to this team, and would like a chance to be. I am just not willing to do that if it means I have to hide who I am, or if I have to constantly wonder if I will get fired for my belief system. I think my sexual identity, life outside of work, and religious views are irrelevant to the social services I provide- I am not any less qualified for my job today than I was yesterday when you believed I was a heterosexual Christian. I have been having daily anxiety attacks about feeling like I have to pretend to be someone I am not. It is not good for my health as a person, and I am not willing to do that- that is why I am writing you this letter. I am aware that writing this letter may be sealing my fate and asking to be fired. That is not my intent. I want to stay here-I want to do this job-but I want to know that when I walk through this door every morning, you know who I am and I want to know that I am here because I am qualified and good at what I do, not because you have a false impression of who I am, or what I believe.