The case of the Iowa dentist who fired one of his assistants for being too attractive and a self-perceived threat to his marriage offers a unique glimpse into the vision of the brave new workplace being pushed by conservatives. This new workplace isn’t governed by the traditional separation of personal and professional spheres and relationships. Instead, it is one where religious guidance and professionals are substituted for employment law and human resource managers, and the result isn’t just an emergence of bad employment law decisions. It is the first fruits of a campaign to radically re-define religious rights and interests in this country.
There are plenty of bad facts to focus on in the case of dental assistant Melissa Nelson. For example, her former boss, Dr. James Knight, defended his actions as lawful, arguing Nelson couldn’t show he discriminated against his female assistants because he only hired women. Or there’s the fact that at each stage of Nelson’s termination and the litigation surrounding it, Knight testified that he was the sole aggressor and that Nelson never returned his flirtations nor responded to his increased attention. This fact, however, was used by the court to defeat Nelson’s discrimination claim, because it showed she never “objected” to the attention. All of these facts should raise red flags; but it’s the court’s attention to the process of deciding to terminate Nelson that deserves special attention.
Central to the decision to fire Nelson were two important people: Knight’s wife, who also is an employee of his dental practice, and their pastor. According to the record, Knight’s wife discovered text messages he sent Nelson while he was away on vacation with their children. Knight’s wife confronted him, when he returned home, and demanded he fire Nelson. The two then met with their pastor, who agreed that the best course of action to address the cracks in their marriage was to get rid of Nelson. Shortly thereafter Knight called a meeting with Nelson where the pastor was present. At this meeting he fired Nelson. A second, follow-up meeting occurred that included Nelson’s husband. Knight’s pastor also attended that meeting.
There are few meetings that are as precisely orchestrated as termination meetings. An entire industry of lawyers exists to advise employers through this process. In Knight’s case, there was no human resources department visible—a fact that, given the small nature of his practice, isn’t necessarily a big deal. But Knight was not without assistance here. Instead he had his pastor, who not only counseled the employment decision, but was present when Knight as an employer carried it out.
Why does this matter? For starters, it shows an inability by both Knight and the Iowa supreme court to distinguish between a personal issue, where a pastor’s presence and guidance would be totally appropriate, and a professional, public issue, where interests are relational and the law is designed to objectively navigate waters that can be clouded by personal emotion. What other options did Knight’s pastor discuss with him? Had other employees complained? What policies did Knight have in place to address workplace harassment or employee conduct? Were those consulted by Knight and his pastor?
It also matters because conservatives want these lines blurred, not just in cases like Knight’s—where on a small-scale, like at a small business, close relationships can straddle between professional and personal—but in cases like the one challenging the contraception mandate. At the core of these legal challenges is an argument that businesses not only can take on the moral, religious beliefs of their owners, but they can act on them as well. If that is the case, then of course a pastor or other religious figure would play a prominent role in a decision to terminate an employee. In such a case, it’s not the law guiding decisions, but one’s moral, religious beliefs.
This, of course, is bad for anyone not invested in traditional constructions of work and family. Knight’s defense of his behavior could be boiled down to an argument that despite the fact Nelson had successfully worked for him for a decade without incident, Knight could no longer be trusted around her. Much like blaming victims of rape for creating the circumstances of their assault, Knight’s argument depends on accepting the idea that men can’t control themselves around women and thus the “solution” is not to change men like Knight but instead punish victims like Nelson.
“Title VII and the Iowa Civil Rights Act are not general fairness laws,” the Iowa supreme court said in justifying its decision. And this is true. Employers can treat employees unfairly, so long as that unfair treatment isn’t based on an employee’s sex, race, age, and so on. But it is disingenuous, at best, to remove from all cultural context the environments such laws police, and that is exactly what happened in Iowa. If conservatives get their way in the contraception litigation, I can only wonder what will happen on a wider scale in workplaces across the country.