By now, I’m sure a lot of you have heard about the pregnant woman fired from her job at a college in San Diego for having engaged in premarital sex. If you want to read more, here’s a link. Or I’ll just sum it up: she was fired from her job for having sex with her fiance. It was a Christian college, and the terms of her contract said that she would not engage in premarital sex. Then the college offered her fiance her old job.
Naturally, a lot of people are pissed about this. But I’ve also been reading a fair amount of “well, she shouldn’t have signed the contract, so I have no sympathy for her.” Or “well, she participated in discrimination in the past by not complaining when the policy or other similar policies was enforced against others, so I have no sympathy for her.” I tried stating succinctly my thoughts on the issue and failed. So here’s my unabridged opinion.
Discrimination is, briefly, treating one class of people one way and another class of people another way rather than judging individuals on their own merits. Under American law, there is permissible discrimination when the discrimination is not based on a protected class, and there is illegal discrimination when it is. Depending on the class (are you discriminating based on gender or race?), you can get away with different things. Because there is no Equal Rights Amendment (I’m looking at you, Virginia), an employer can discriminate against women if it has an important reason for doing so (in short). But for race or religion or other protected classes, the employer must demonstrate a compelling reason for the discrimination. It sounds like a meaningless distinction, but what it boils down to is that courts are more likely to find that discrimination against protected classes is illegal than they are for discrimination against women or unprotected classes.
With that in mind, let’s look at religions institutions. Religious institutions are allowed to discriminate when hiring religious professionals (but not lay professionals). Of course Catholic churches would only want to hire priests that are Catholic and synagogues would only want to hire rabbis that are Jewish. But this also extends to some teachers in religious schools. Whether or not we like it, it’s what the First Amendment allows. Thus some are looking at Teri James and saying “well, the college had a right to discriminate against people who didn’t have their same value system” or that it was ok for the college to put a morality clause in their contract that would make their employees adhere to their particular moral code. Whether or not we agree with that practice, or whether or not we think it should be allowed, the college was allowed to do that.
Here’s the catch–Ms. James wasn’t fired for failing to adhere to the terms of her contract. And we know that because of who her old job was offered to. (Unless they were also accusing Ms. James of cheating on her fiance.)
Some bigots and racists have gotten “smart” about how they exercise their bigotry and racism. They won’t say “I’m firing you because you’re a minority.” They’ll make up some bullshit excuse. Or the excuse will be totally valid, but they will treat your infractions more seriously than those with the right color skin, religion, or reproductive organs. Courts (hopefully) will see through the bullshit.
When we look at the firing of Ms. James, we should put on those same bullshit glasses. We should see that, even if we think it’s ok for her employer to discriminate or control her behavior, that wasn’t the reason why she was fired.