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 New 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.
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?