What’s Missing from the Gay Teacher Firing Debate

Gene Marks: Businesses are forced to focus on the needs of customers and constituencies.

Waldron Mercy Academy via Google Maps

Waldron Mercy Academy via Google Maps

Waldron Mercy Academy in Merion, Pa., has come under fire this week for its decision to fire Margie Winters, one of its long-time teachers — allegedly because she’s a lesbian and married to another lesbian.

“Many of us accept life choices that contradict current church teachings, but to continue as a Catholic school, Waldron Mercy must comply with those teachings,” the school said in a letter to parents.

Firing a competent, well-like teacher just because she’s gay seems like pretty despicable stuff. So was the school right to do this? Angela Giampolo, a Philadelphia-based attorney that specializes in LGBT law, weighs in:

“I agree that a religious institution should be allowed to follow whatever canons or theological scriptures that it believes in, but the whole next wave of litigation surrounding LGBT rights will be determining where our Fourteenth Amendment right to marriage granted to us in the Constitution begins and where the First Amendment right to religious liberties end.”

Giampolo is referring to the recent firestorm of cases invoking the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, where bakeries and wedding shops refused to serve their gay clientele on the grounds of their religious beliefs. The Waldron Mercy controversy only serves to re-ignite the issue. Since April, more than 100 anti-LGBT bills were introduced in 29 state legislatures – all based on religious freedoms, said Giampolo.

“The owner of a hardware store in Tennessee puts up a sign in his window that states, ‘NO GAYS ALLOWED!’ While he has a first amendment right to free speech and religious liberties, ‘exercising religious freedoms’ in commerce isn’t sustainable long term,” said Giampolo. “How can he tell who is gay and who isn’t? Being gay isn’t visible like being a woman or being African American. It’s not clear that what he did was even legal. There’s no state law saying they can refuse gays but there’s no law saying they can’t. What we do know for sure is that Pennsylvania’ Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not extend to for-profit businesses — so there is a good argument that they cannot. Someone just has to sue — hence why I believe this is our next wave of litigation.”

Should religious institutions be allowed to discriminate based on a person’s sexual orientation? Should for-profit businesses be allowed to do this on the grounds of their religious beliefs? As a business owner there’s something that strikes me as missing from this conversation.

Maybe it shouldn’t be about religion at all. Maybe it should be about something, or someone, that’s even more important. And that’s the customer. An organization, whether non-profit or for-profit exists first to serve its customers (or members, or congregants or students or whatever you want to call the end user of the product or service). Without customers there would be no employees and no debates about discrimination. So let’s leave everyone else out and ask: What’s in the best interest of the customer?

In the case of the hardware store, a customer should have the right to buy a shovel if they can afford it, regardless of their sexual orientation. But in the case of Waldron Mercy, having a teacher who is openly gay, no matter how competent, is not what most of these families signed up for when they chose to send their children to a Catholic school. As a customer, I only care that my cab driver has good vision and that my waiter washed his hands – not whether he’s gay or not. This responsibility extends to employees too. Winters should know what she signed up for when she chose to teach at a Catholic school, just like the retail employee knows what he signs up for when he’s working long hours during the holiday season. That’s what customers expect.

Of course, there will be more fights to come. Giampolo will certainly be busy. But maybe the fight shouldn’t be about the gay teacher or the homophobic hardware store owner. In the end, and for the benefit of all those that rely on an organization to succeed, shouldn’t the welfare of the customer be what drives future legislation?

Gene Marks is a guest columnist for BizPhilly. He’s written for publications like the New York Times, Forbes and the Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter. All opinions expressed in this column are his own.