Alaska’s Human Rights Commission (HRC), a government agency established to enforce the state’s human rights laws, recently heard a case involving Paul Kopf, the owner of Goldstream General Store in Fairbanks. A former employee, Lynn Dowler, alleged that she was forced to quit because she found the owner’s religious talk too offensive to handle. The HRC determined that Mr. Kopf had discriminated against his employee by speaking openly about his religious views and imposed a $75,000 fine against him.
When I first heard about this ruling several days ago, I was upset. So I sought out Mr. Kopf’s attorney in Fairbanks, Tom Wickwire. After talking to Mr. Wickwire yesterday, I became incensed.
Here’s what Mr. Wickwire told me really happened in the case:
Paul Kopf [also] hired employee Lynn Dowler’s daughter, knowing she was a lesbian. While the daughter worked for Kopf, she went through a very unhappy and stressful break-up of a relationship. It affected her job performance and absenteeism so much that Lynn Dowler recommended, or suggested that Kopf fire her daughter. He didn’t. Instead he kept her on, allowing her time to work through her emotional crisis. This showed compassion and sympathy for an employee with a lifestyle that many do not accept. Kopf also had several other employees who, I will say, lived on the fringes, if not outside of, mainstream society.
This “tolerance” made one of Ms. Dowler’s other allegations, that Mr. Kopf was vehemently intolerant of Catholics, even less believable. Mr. Wickwire continued:
While Dowler was in the hearing trying her best to convince the Admin law Judge that she had reached the point of not being able to take Kopf’s religious talk any longer, it became clear that she had never complained to Kopf that some of his talk was offensive, in fact had never told him she was Catholic. But in the hearing, [she] complained that Kopf was harshly critical of Catholics.
There is clearly established law in other areas that an employee who feels subjected to a hostile work environment has a duty to tell the boss what she finds offensive, so the boss knows and has a chance to stop before getting sued. I briefed this law to the Human Rights Commission and they apparently ignored it.
To make matters worse, after Ms. Dowler quit, she later submitted a list of grievances to Mr. Kopf. This list contained no complaint about religious talk. But the grievance list that was later submitted to the HRC was apparently altered to include a religious discrimination claim. Why? Mr. Wickwire stated that, “for Dowler to have a winnable case, she had to prove she quit because of religious discrimination.” He believes that she added the religious allegation “to the list when she learned, probably from talking to the Human Rights Commission after she quit , that this was the only way they would take her case on.”
Mr. Wickwire concludes:
It was disappointing that the Human Rights Commission did not realize that the First Amendment is what protects the right of a private business owner on his own property in speaking his mind. This right, and its limits, seems particularly important when our nation has embarked on a debate about Mormonism and what would it mean to have a Mormon President. We should not punish people for expressing their religious beliefs, including doubts or criticisms of other religions. The US Supreme Court has said in many First Amendment decisions that free, open vigorous debate of conflicting viewpoints is the surest and safest way to expose unworthy ideas and have the best ones gain acceptance. This case, and the HRC’s handling of it has set us back.
What was accomplished here?
Kopf is broke. His belief in America as a country that values differing religions and encourage lively religious debate is much shaken. If the HRC is right, it has taught Kopf that he can think what he wants but had better not talk about his faith.
An employer who had shown himself willing to hire people who were otherwise not likely to get decent paying jobs, is run out of business.
The Right of individuals to speak about their faith on their own property freely, without fear of persecution is now in question, at least in Alaska.