I stink nowadays at knowing what you are allowed and not allowed to say in public. So does Barbara Davis. On Aug. 31, 2011, her employer terminated her as administrative support assistant at Penn State University for not knowing that she couldn’t mention God in the office.
The 50-year-old single mother, whom I met two years into her ordeal, was devastated after being let go for “insubordination” and failing to meet HR-78 “standards of professional conduct.” During Thanksgiving season of 2009 the affable and simple-hearted Davis had thanked God in a departmental email and was promptly directed to remove the religious words (which she did) along with the following innocuous Longfellow quote: “Man is unjust, but God is just; and finally justice triumphs.”
In May 2011, a colleague had approached Barbara’s desk, produced a dollar bill, and expressed his dislike of the phrase “In God We Trust,” which he turned into a discussion of gay marriage. Barbara was disagreeing when the supervisor walked in and placed her on termination notice, saying, “We just came out from a diversity event and look at what you’re doing!”
Barbara, like the present writer, does not have a sufficiently subtle mind to understand why quotes about God are bad but quotes about Gandhi are good. The latter crisscross unobstructed over Penn State’s campus. I drove out west for the principals’ side of the story but was told no one could speak to me because it was an “internal personnel” matter.
Bruce Barry understands. The author of Speechless: The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace writes: “…the outcomes of cases involving workplace expression often turn on interpretations of vague and shifting standards, balancing tests designed to weigh competing interests that are inherently subjective, and the ever-changing happenstance of a court’s ideological composition at a given time.” “Vague,” “shifting,” “subjective,” “ever-changing.” No wonder Barbara and I are perplexed.
Silly Barbara, she thought Penn State’s Policy AD 29 Statement on Intolerance was implemented to protect people like her: “The Pennsylvania State University is committed to preventing and eliminating acts of intolerance by faculty, staff, and students, and encourages anyone in the University community to report concerns and complaints about acts of intolerance to the Affirmative Action Office.”
A former professor at Penn State who did agree to talk said I will never find out for sure why Ms. Davis was fired. “Why?” I asked. “They’ll make up some other reason; they’ll hide behind the ‘at will employment,’” the nationwide labor law that, with some modifications and exceptions, permits employers to fire for any cause or no cause. As John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute says, “Someone says anything that an employer or government official doesn’t like, and they’re gone.”
But doesn’t the First Amendment guarantee free speech? you ask. Answer: Not Barbara Davis’ conversations around her cubicle. The Constitution only protects Barbara’s right to expression from government interference, not from the restrictions a private boss may place. (Aside to reader: But don’t universities receive federal aid, making them quasi-governmental?)
Moral dilemma: If an employer may lawfully put restrictions on the speech of his underlings, should Barbara have abided by her supervisor’s wishes and refrained from mentioning God? What shall we answer? It is good to obey our “masters,” even harsh ones (1 Peter 2:18-20). On the other hand, Peter replied to the authorities who ordered him to desist from talking about God: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20).
One looks for justice on earth, but “the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he” (Habakkuk 1:13). This is what happened to Barbara Davis. After tossing and turning over the question of whether it is right to mention Christ in a work environment where policy forbids it, I have come to the conclusion that it is—as long as you have counted and accepted the likely consequences. For increasingly in the land of the free and the home of the brave, “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).
Sequel: Barbara Davis now works in a pizza parlor and cleans houses.