Civil Liberties

This Week in Dubious Rights: Newspaper Editor Claims Firing Over Anti-Gay Rant Violates His Religious Freedom



An Iowa journalist is suing his employer for discrimination after being fired over anti-gay remarks on his personal blog. Robert Dale Eschliman was editor-in-chief of the Newton Daily News, which fired him following a post alleging the Bible compelled him to fight against "the LGBTQXYZ crowd and the Gaystapo" because they were God's enemies. 

A conservative Christian group called the Liberty Institute (ugh)—formerly the Free Market Foundation (ugh)—helped Eschliman file his suit. "There is no question that I was fired for holding and talking about my sincerely held religious beliefs on my personal blog during my off-duty time from the comfort of my own home," wrote Eschliman in his lawsuit. "I would like to have obtained a religious accommodation for my sincerely held religious belief to share my Biblical view with the few family members and friends who read my blog." 

While cloaked in the cause of religious liberty, Eschliman's lawsuit makes a mockery of the concept. First, because there is no government actor here. Rather we have a private company deciding that the way Eschliman practiced his religion interfered with his ability to properly do the job they hired him for.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) does prevent employers from rejecting, punishing, or firing individuals soley based on their religious beliefs or affiliation. But it is not meant to serve as a shield that allows any religious person to avoid any aspect of a job that they oppose.

In this case, maintaining a neutral public attitude toward hot-button issues was central to Eschliman's job. No one was punishing him for privately holding or espousing anti-homosexual beliefs. But Eschliman—the lead editor of a traditional, non-ideological newspaper—wants to be able to air these beliefs publicly with total impunity. That's not asking for a reasonable accommodation, its asking for special treatment, at the expense of the company's good. 

If Eschliman's words were truly directed to only "a few family members and friends," he could have made the blog private, or sent a group email. Instead, he chose to publish these thoughts openly and freely online. Here's a snippet: 

[Jesus] said there would be deceivers. He said those deceivers would cause Christians who remain true to His teachings to become reviled. He said false prophets would follow to deceive even more, and that lawlessness will abound.

If you ask me, it sounds like the Gaystapo is well on its way. We must fight back against the enemy.

Are those firing words? Reasonable people might disagree. Ultimately, all that matters is what Eschliman's employer thought. It's certainly not uncommon to expect journalists, especially news editors, to show some restraint in expressing personal opinions publicly. For example, here's what The Associated Press advises its employees:

Anyone who works for the AP must be mindful that opinions they express may damage the AP's reputation as an unbiased source of news. They must refrain from declaring their views on contentious public issues in any public forum, whether in Web logs, chat rooms, letters to the editor, petitions, bumper stickers or lapel buttons, and must not take part in demonstrations in support of causes or movements." 

As the Newton Daily News' editor-in-chief, asking Eschliman to keep personal political and moral beliefs out of public view is a sensible stricture of the job. What's unreasonable is expecting employers to accommodate any conduct described as a "sincerely held religious belief," even if that conduct is antithetical to the employer's aims. Here's what the EEOC says about the limits of religious accommodations by employers (emphasis mine):  

The law requires an employer or other covered entity to reasonably accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practices, unless doing so would cause more than a minimal burden on the operations of the employer's business. 

An individual's "right" to practice their religion however they want while simultaneously holding any job they want does not trump an employer's prerogative to run their business as they see fit or necessary.

Yet asserting otherwise seems to be popular this week. In another current case, a Florida nurse who opposes contraception and refuses to prescribe it is suing after being told she doesn't meet the requirements for a job that involves a good deal of counseling about and prescribing contraception. Here is an applicant stating up front that she refuses to do a core part of the job in question and then suing for discrimination when told she's not qualified for said job. It's mind-boggling. These are fights for "religious liberty" in the same way compelling homophobic photographers to work gay weddings or Christian conservative companies to offer birth control are wins for equality.