Jeffrey Neil Young

Jeffrey Neil Young

Imagine being a single woman in your early 30s, finally landing the perfect job. You’re excited about the potential this has to be a lifetime career and are eager to do your best.

Then you find that your supervisor does not approve of your religion, your dating activity and the fact that you’re female single and working.

In fact, on your second day, you find yourself trapped in an hourlong car ride with your new supervisor who wants to talk to you about your dating habits and sex life.

You want to be polite but don’t know what to say. Overnight, your dream job becomes a nightmare. You spend your days at work dealing with comments attacking you for your beliefs and your living situation. You’re told you will go to hell because you’re divorced. You’re told your religion is more of a gym workout than a service. You’re told you shouldn’t have premarital sex and you are scolded when you date. You are forced to endure almost daily lectures about the importance of female virginity, the immorality of homosexuality (gay people should be barred from entering the country), and the heavenly benefits of your supervisor’s church. Your supervisor regularly “jokes” that a woman’s place is in front of the oven and that his wife should have his dinner hot and ready for him when he comes home.

You may think this couldn’t happen in this day and age, but this situation occurred to my client, Becky Carnot, at her job for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Coburn Gore.

When Becky finally decided to stand up for herself by filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, her supervisor retaliated against her by scrutinizing her performance and disciplining her for conduct that another supervisor found faultless. A number of her co-workers, several of whom belonged to the same fundamentalist church as her supervisor, ostracized her. Ultimately, Becky was unfairly fired. Last week, it was revealed that Customs and Border Protection paid $285,000 to settle her discrimination suit.

While this story has generated a good deal of interest, I have to say Becky’s plight is not so uncommon as you might expect. Every day, I hear from working Mainers subjected to their supervisor’s or co-workers prejudices and personal beliefs.

We live in a country that was founded upon freedom of religion. Our right to express our religious beliefs is very important, but so is our right to be free from religious intolerance.

Americans have the right to not be forced to worship any particular way or at all, to reject others religious beliefs. Becky’s supervisor’s forcing his beliefs on her constituted harassment.

Like some kinds of sexual harassment, where an employee may be subject to uncomfortable jokes or pictures, religious harassment can be equally offensive.

An employer (other than a religious organization) is not entitled to force its religious views on employees. Another woman who worked in Coburn Gore quit because the same supervisor harassed her in the same way. In fact, she said her supervisor would drive by her boyfriend’s house in the morning to see if her car was there and then, if it was, berate her when she came to work.

With women now composing a majority of the work force, one would expect that, by now, the idea that women belong at home should be a relic of the past.

With all our anti-discrimination laws and training, one would think that managers would understand it is unlawful to treat women differently than men.

However, from my 30 years of experience as a civil rights attorney, I know blatant discrimination and harassment of women still occurs all too often. While a person’s religious beliefs may be strong, they do not give that person an excuse to harass women (or anyone, for that matter).

Becky’s supervisor is still employed at U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. So far as I know, no discipline has been taken.

But I hope this substantial settlement will teach him and the coworkers who harassed Becky that that, while they are free to practice whatever religion they choose, they cannot force their beliefs upon anyone else. Doing so is a violation of the law. And a violation of the very principals of the country they are employed to protect.

JEFFREY NEIL YOUNG is an attorney and partner at McTeague Higbee in Topsham.

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