Court upholds firing of Bible-quoting antigay employee

BY admin

January 08 2004 12:00 AM ET

Hewlett-Packard Co. acted legally when it fired a veteran employee at its Boise, Ida., facility for posting selected Bible verses in his work cubicle to protest the company's diversity campaign, a federal appeals court panel ruled Tuesday. A three-judge panel of the ninth U.S. circuit court of appeals in San Francisco held that the constitutional right to freedom of religion does not guarantee Richard D. Peterson the right to post biblical verses condemning homosexuality with the stated purpose of harassing gay fellow employees. He was terminated, and he then sued the company for $1 million, claiming religious discrimination. A lower court granted the company's request to throw out the lawsuit, and Peterson appealed to the ninth circuit. "Peterson may be correct that the [company's diversity] campaign devoted special attention to combating prejudice against homosexuality, but such an emphasis is in no manner unlawful," Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for the unanimous panel. "To the contrary, Hewlett-Packard's efforts to eradicate discrimination against homosexuals in its workplace were entirely consistent with the goals and objectives of our civil rights statutes generally."

But Christ Troupis, Peterson's attorney, claimed the appeals court unfairly portrayed Peterson as a religious extremist, and he warned that the ruling could eradicate freedom of religious expression in the workplace. He promised to seek U.S. Supreme Court review. "While the words used in the scriptures he quoted might be strong, the method he chose to express his beliefs was the least intrusive possible," Troupis said after reviewing the 15-page ruling. "He didn't talk to anybody, he didn't corner
anyone, and nobody complained."

Peterson, who had worked for Hewlett-Packard for 21 years, objected on religious grounds to the diversity posters the company put up calling for tolerance of gay employees. As a devout Christian, he said he had a duty "to expose evil when confronted with it" and he did that by posting selected Bible verses where other employees could see them. Among those verses was a highly controversial passage from Leviticus: "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed
an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them." His supervisor removed the verses because of their potentially offensive nature, prompting a series of meetings between managers and Peterson. A resolution of the dispute could not be worked out, and Peterson informed company officials that as long as they condoned homosexuality through their diversity
campaign, he would oppose it. He was given some time off with pay to consider his position, but when he returned to work he again posted the verses in his cubicle. Following additional meetings with managers, he was fired for insubordination.

The appeals court emphasized that while the company objected to the biblical verses, it made no attempt to force Peterson to change his beliefs, did not object to an antigay letter to the editor Peterson had printed in The Idaho Statesman criticizing the diversity campaign, and did not deny Peterson a space in the employee parking lot because his car bore the bumper sticker "Sodomy is not a
family value." Reinhardt concluded, "Peterson offered no evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, that would support a reasonable inference that his termination was the result of disparate treatment on account of religion."

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