Religious Freedom & Discrimination
As this is being written, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act passed in the Senate and is awaiting the consideration of the House. This bill would protect employees from being fired based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill exempts businesses that have less than 15 employees, religious non-profits, government owned businesses and businesses owned by Native American tribes.
Speaking against this bill, Republican Senator Dan Coats claimed that it violates the religious freedom of businesses owners. In making his case, he used the example of how faith-based daycare providers “could be forced to hire individuals with views contrary to the faith incorporated values of the daycare providers.” He also raised the concern that the bill also violated the right to free speech because it would “also would allow employers to be held liable to workplace environment complaints opening the door to the silencing of employees who express their deeply held beliefs.” There are two general issues here that I will address in turn.
The first issue is whether or not forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is a violation of the religious freedom of business owners.
Business owners do not lose their right to religious freedom just because they own a business. As such, they are free to hold to whatever religious belief (or disbelief) that they wish. However, the law can justly limit how they can act on those beliefs. For example, a person can freely worship a deity that they believe demands human sacrifice but they should not be granted an exemption in regards to the laws against murdering humans. In this case, the harms that would arise by allowing human sacrifice outweigh concerns about religious freedom. That is, the right of people not to be murdered trumps the right of people to freely exercise their faith.
In the case of the anti-discrimination law, the core question is whether or not the right of the owner to act on his religious belief trumps the right of employees not to be discriminated against. It is, of course, assumed that employees have such a right—but it could be argued that there is no such right and that employers should have the right to fire anyone, anytime for any reason. In this case, any laws that limited this alleged right would be wrong—thus making it morally acceptable for people to be fired for being Christian, straight, blue-eyed, ugly, smart, black, white, or anything at all. Presumably this would also allow employees to be fired for not having sex with the boss. This, however, seems absurd. As such, it seems reasonable to assume that employees have a right to be protected against discrimination.
It could be argued that firing someone solely on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identification would not be discrimination. However, firing an employee solely because of her sexual orientation or gender identification would clearly seem to be discrimination by its very nature. After all, the person is being fired for a reason that is not relevant to the job in question. This would also apply to non-firing cases, such as underpaying an employee. Naturally, if a person’s behavior arising from her sexual orientation or gender identity did impact her job in relevant ways, then the employer could act against the employee without it being discrimination. But this would be acting based on the detrimental behavior, not the orientation or identity.
Thus, it comes down to whether or not an employer should have the right to fire, etc. an employee solely for the reason that the employee has a sexual orientation or gender identity that the employer regards as being against his religious beliefs. Given that the employee is not providing any other justification for being fired, etc. the answer would seem to be “no.” After all, firing someone solely for his sexual orientation or gender identity would be on par with firing someone solely because he was a Christian or Latino. If the employer had a faith that involved regarding being a Christian as wicked or one that involved racism that would not provide an exemption. Crudely put, just because someone has a bigoted and prejudiced faith that does not thus warrant his acting on it.
As a final argument, there is the fact that the harm done to employees would exceed the harm being done to employers. The fact that a religious person might have to endure having gay, women, Christian or Asian employees creates far less harm than allowing employers to engage in discrimination. Thus, the right to religious freedom does not trump the right to not be discriminated against.
The second issue is whether or not the right to free speech protects employees expressing religious beliefs in the workplace when these expressions express discriminatory views against the sexual orientation or gender identity of employees.
This issue is, obviously, very similar to the previous one. In this case, the question is whether or not the right to free expression trumps the right to not be subject to discriminatory expressions in the workplace.
On the face of it, there generally seems to be no compelling reason why people would need to express their views about sexual orientation or gender identity while at work—even if someone had faith-based views of these matters that involved regarding, for example, being gay as wicked. To use the obvious analogy, there seems to generally be no compelling reason why people would need to express their views about race while at work—even if they had faith based views on these matters that involved, for example, ideas of white supremacy. In contrast, expressing discriminatory views against the sexual orientation or gender identity of people in the workplace would create a hostile workplace and this would be a harm. As such, the right of freedom of expression does not seem to trump the right of people to not be subject to such expressions in the workplace.
Crudely put, requiring people to not engage in discriminatory expression (whether it is faith based or not) while in the workplace imposes less of a burden than requiring people to endure it in the workplace.
In regards to both issues, one could argue that certain sexual orientations or gender identities are such that they would warrant firing a person and also speaking out in the workplace against them. For example, firing a person from a daycare job because he is a pedophile or speaking out against pedophiles in the workplace would not seem to unjustly discriminate against pedophiles.
The question would then be whether or not the protected sexual orientations and gender identities are such that merely having one would warrant firing, etc. a person. In regards to the sexual orientations and gender identities covered by the bill, the answer would seem to clearly be “no.”
Thus, it would seem that religious freedom and free speech do not warrant workplace prejudice.