BY JAMES SCALZITTI Staff Reporterjscalzitti@suntimes.com Apr 7, 2011 2:09AM
Wal-Mart was within its rights to fire a Joliet store employee who told a lesbian co-worker she would go to hell because God does not accept gays, and the dismissal was not religious discrimination, a federal appeals court has ruled.
Tanisha Matthews began working as an overnight stocker at the Joliet Wal-Mart in 1996, according to court documents. In September 2005, during a break in her shift, Matthews took part in a conversation about God and homosexuality.
The next day, an employee informed a manager that Matthews had made inappropriate comments about gays to a lesbian employee named Amy. Over the next three months, Wal-Mart interviewed employees who were present.
In her statement, Amy reported that Matthews was “screaming over her” that God does not accept gays; they should not “be on earth”; and they will “go to hell” because they are not “right in the head,” according to the appeals court ruling. Five other employees confirmed that Matthews had said gays are sinners who are going to hell, the ruling said.
Wal-Mart fired Matthews after concluding she had engaged in behavior that violated the company’s Discrimination and Harassment Prevention Policy. The policy, which the court said Matthews was aware of at the time of the incident, prohibits employees from engaging in conduct that could reasonably be interpreted as harassment based on an individual’s status, including sexual orientation, and says they can be fired for such conduct.
Matthews, an Apostolic Christian, sued Wal-Mart Stores Inc. for race and religious discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, claiming she was fired because of her religious beliefs and not for violating company policy.
She voluntarily dismissed the race discrimination claim, and the U.S. District Court in Chicago granted summary judgment to Wal-Mart on her religious-discrimination claim.
In her suit, Matthews claimed Wal-Mart engaged in religious discrimination by firing her for expressing religious beliefs. “But if Matthews is arguing that Wal-Mart must permit her to admonish gays at work to accommodate her religion, the claim fails,” the Appeals Court stated in its decision.
Walmart enforced its policy, but what if it had not? Would the employee who was harassed have been able to mount a successful complaint? There needs to be a law, the Healthy Workplace Bill, because it's the person who is bullied who needs protection when employers don't follow through and fire the bully, or when employers do follow the law, produce the policy, but the bully continues in spite of it or more clandestinely.
The decision also shows that a store like Walmart, which really does cater to a kind of "middle American," recognized in 2005 that this kind of behavior toward a lesbian employee was wrong and needed to be stopped.