Skip to main content

Pink slip speech

Count the cost before mentioning Christ in a work environment where policy forbids it

Pink slip speech

(Krieg Barrie)

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.

Email aseupeterson@wng.com

Comments

  • watchwoman
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:46 pm

    Ms. Seu seems to have drunk the Left's KoolAide, much as many evangelical Christians have bought into the Left's attempts to define separation of church and state as meaning a Christian only has the right to worship.  The right of free speech is as near absolute a right as the Constitution gives. Your employer does not have the right to restrict your speech; does not have the right to say you cannot mention God's name.  As long as you are adequately doing your job, you have the right to speak.  Outrage, not craven submission should be the response.  Know your rights.

  • InTheWorldNotOfIT
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:46 pm

    Here is the rule of thumb, in the work place you are paid to do a job.  If a person wanted to know your personal thought then the conversation needs to be outside the office.  Meet them for coffee and you can share the gospel a lot better than in a side conversation at the desk.  At my job I have to be very careful of what I say because it can be construed as me creating a hostile work environment.  However if they are insistent on knowing what I believe I will share very quietly or outside the office.  You must give the devil his due.  Paul was persecuted by the government for doing his job.  He was being paid and supported by other believers to spread the gospel.  The best way to spread the gospel at work is to be the best employee you can and to be transparent.  There have been jobs I've worked in where the owner was a militant atheist and was frothing at the mouth when he found out I was a Christian.  He found out through gossip but not through me proselytizing.  At that job I would come in early and pray in the server room for everyone in that office.  Eventually  more Christians started to work in that office.  We can be wise as a snake but as gentle as a dove.  I find more people straight out ask me what I believe through this approach then any other.  I now work with buddist and muslims who activily engage me in conversations about what I believe at work.  Once they start the conversation and ask the questions and as long as I respectfully answer I cannot be accused of anything, especially if my work is done accurately and in a timely manor.  My first obligation is to my employer as pointed out in 1 Peter 2:18-20, God will provide the opportunities for me to share the gospel and He's never failed at that.

  • World Observer
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:46 pm

    We might sum up our life purpose with, "Sing to the Lord, praise His name;  proclaim His salvation day after day.  Declare His glory among the nations, His marvelous deeds among all people."  (Psalm 96:2-3)Ms. Davis seems to be right with the program.  We can be encouraged that the consequential cost of her faithfulness, in this temporary world, has been noted by the same ultimate eternal judge who inspired the Psalms.

  • Bear
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:46 pm

    I agree with the problems and issues presented here, but I cringed when I read the "aside to reader".  It is this argument that is used against "us" to say that school voucher programs should not allow parents to use them at Christian schools.  That same argument could be used to say that Christian universities either can't receive federal aid or must give up teaching from a decidedly Christian worldview (which is also changing with or without pressure from the government, but of course that is another topic often mentioned by WORLD).  When it comes to federal funding, we can't have it both ways depending on when it bolsters our argument, even if it is a favorite tactic of our opposition.

  • wdane's picture
    wdane
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:46 pm

    BTW I wonder how many in a moment of surprise or anger use the word "God" automatically. Some call is swearing, but it is clearly breaking of their workplace law. Of course in an Alice in Wonderland world of "tolerance" that would not be interpreted literally. "Tolerance" has become a camouflage word to disguise intolerance of a particular viewpoint over a currently in favor viewpoint. Restricting free speech is movement on a slippery slope to dictatorship. It stops honest open discussion of differing viewpoints which is central to the process of self government of, by and for the people. Hope this practice in Universities across the land does not spread in the thinking of those being trained (I didn't say "educated") and infect our society at large (as it appears to be doing).

  • Janice G's picture
    Janice G
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:46 pm

    There is no glamour in daily wearing a PC muzzle to work. Praise God that we still have some reasonable employers.

  • Bruce's picture
    Bruce
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:46 pm

    May the Lord bless Ms. Davis and give her contentment in the certain fellowship of His Spirit and His love.  Yes, we must be ready to count the cost, and it does seem to be increasing in the American workplace.  There is also Jesus' admonition to be innocent as doves and shrewd as snakes.  It is a grey area that can test our willingness to compromise or hold fast to our faith.  If we don't give up more than is right, I think we can be discerning and careful in being a witness in less direct ways and still honor the Lord and preserve the opportunity for future service that our employment may give us.  On the other hand, we can trust the prompting of the Spirit to give us ideas and words that may put us in the same position of opposition to the world.  Thank you for a encouraging and challenging article, Ms. Peterson.