Culture

Playing with fire

Culture | Firefighter Ron Greer challenged the pro-gay climate in Madison, Wisconsin, and got burned

Issue: "Who'll be king of the Hill?," Oct. 7, 2000

Firefighter Ron Greer played with a hot issue and got burned. In November 1996, after he distributed anti-homosexuality pamphlets to fellow firefighters, Debra Amesqua, the pro-gay fire chief of Madison, Wisconsin, suspended him for three months without pay and ordered him to begin "diversity training." Mr. Greer, an 18-year veteran of the force, appealed the next day to the Madison Police and Fire Commission. WORLD covered Mr. Greer's failed appeal, reporting that Madison homosexual groups vandalized Mr. Greer's home, sent threats, and rioted outside his church (WORLD, "Zero tolerance," March 22, 1997). During the three-month suspension that began in June 1997, Ms. Amesqua recommended that Mr. Greer be fired, saying his "continuing presence on the worksite can no longer be tolerated considering the open, notorious and personal way in which [he] attempts to address [his] personal agenda." In 1998 Mr. Greer issued a news release accusing Ms. Amesqua of favoritism for failing to properly discipline a lesbian training officer who abused a recruit, and the Madison Police and Fire Commission fired him. Mr. Greer sued, "seeking damages and reinstatement for violation of his First Amendment rights," but U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled there was no such violation. In 1998 Mr. Greer also sought the Republican nomination for Congress in Wisconsin's second district. Alan Keyes and Charles Colson gave their support, and Reggie White and James Dobson recorded ads for him, but Mr. Greer had enough money to air them only a few times. One bumper sticker read, "Annoy the liberals in Madison, vote for Ron Greer." "Nobody took us seriously," Mr. Greer said. "We had two media inquiries going into election night and neither reporter showed up at our offices. Then, when the results started coming in and we were winning or second, the next thing we knew there was a barrage of media at our office." He lost the September primary by 380 votes, coming in second of six. He's happy with his finish, but surprised by modern ethics. "I learned that people have drifted much further from our moral center than I thought," the ex-marine said. After hanging up the hose, Mr. Greer spent 18 months looking for a job while helping to pastor a tiny church, Trinity Evangelical Fellowship. In September 1999 he became field services director for Network for Life, an "after care" program of Prison Fellowship Ministries. Mr. Greer still sends fundraising letters to raise the legal fees totaling around $250,000 owed to his lawyer, who did much of the work pro bono. In May 1999, Mr. Greer set off another siren. He sent 3,000 anti-homosexuality letters to parents of Verona school district; his sons had told him about gay student groups in both the high and middle schools, but principals and the school superintendent refused to meet with him. Some Verona parents got hot because Mr. Greer included a flier posted by a student gay group that named its leaders. Mr. Greer lost what was probably a final appeal of his firing in May 2000, in the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Circuit Judge Michael Kanne noted that he attended Ms. Amesqua's swearing-in ceremony carrying a protest sign and mentioned his "long disciplinary history with the department." Mr. Greer argues that, while he has had disagreements with both Ms. Amesqua and her predecessor, his overall disciplinary record was solid. Mr. Greer's lawyer will file an application to take the case to the Supreme Court, but Mr. Greer is not hopeful that it will be heard. "This is not a groundbreaking issue with them," he said. In the end, the modern-day prophet thought he could change America, or at least the Madison Fire Department, but the courts found a pastor with a discipline problem. "Going into it, I thought that if it went to court, and we presented our facts clearly, the judges would see clearly the inequalities of the case and rule for us," he says. "It didn't happen. I guess I was a bit na? about that."

-with reporting by Les Sillars; Leah Driggers is a World Journalism Institute student

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