The Time Boehner Wanted a Gay Man Fired for Supporting Gay Rights

In the United States, there are 29 states where you can fire someone just because they're gay. And yet, Speaker John Boehner, who could bring the Employment Non Discrimination Act to a vote, sees "no basis or need for this legislation" —even though in 2010 he wanted to fire a gay Obama appointee for his gay rights advocacy. 

This article is from the archive of our partner .

In the U.S., there are 29 states where you can fire someone just because they're gay. The entire nation thinks this is unacceptable. And yet, House Speaker John Boehner, the guy who could fix this by allowing a vote on the Employment Non Discrimination Act, sees "no basis or need for this legislation." Boehner made that comment while talking to reporters on Thursday and he was asked whether or not Republican leadership would allow the Senate-approved measure a vote in the House. Boehner painted a bleary picture for the measure, because he doesn't believe there's a specific "need" for it. Here's his full quote:

... People are already protected in the workplace. I’m opposed to continuing this. Listen, I understand people have differing opinions on this issue, and I respect those opinions. But as someone who’s worked in the employment law area for all my years in the statehouse and all my years here, I see no basis or no need for this legislation.

Boehner telling you there's no need for discrimination protection is like watching a horror movie where the calls are coming from inside the house. To say there's no need for that kind of legislation would be to ignore all his party has done to say gay people aren't equal. He'd also have to ignore himself. 

In 2009, President Obama appointed Harry Knox, who is gay, to his Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Part of the council's job is to identify "best practices and successful modes of delivering social services."  The council was first started by President Bush, and its main responsibilities include dealing with federal grants and advising the White House on social policy. Each member serves a one-year term, which Knox completed.

At the time, Knox was the director of the Human Rights Campaign's religion and faith program and was a former pastor of a United Methodist Church in Georgia. The HRC, of course, is one of the largest and most visible gay rights advocacy organizations. "The [gay and lesbian] community is eager to help the administration achieve its goals around economic recovery and fighting poverty, fatherhood and healthy families; inter-religious dialogue; care for the environment; and global poverty, health and development," Knox said at the time of his appointment. He had also taken public stands against the Vatican's views on condoms and the AIDS crisis. After Pope Benedict XVI had said that the use of condoms "aggravates" the AIDS crisis, Knox said that type of logic was "hurting people in the name of Jesus."

It wasn't long after his appointment coalition of anti-gay groups — including the Family Research Council, the Catholic League, and the conservative media watchdog, The Media Research Center — sent a letter asking Obama to fire him, calling him an "anti-Catholic bigot." The headlining signature of that letter was then-House Minority Leader John Boehner.

Dear Mr. President,

The self-proclaimed anti-Catholic bigot you appointed to head up faith-based partnerships has reiterated his deep seeded prejudice against the Pope and the teachings of the Catholic Church, and your failure to remove him from office speaks volumes about how much you really value respect for diversity and religious differences.

We first warned you in a May 2009 letter that Knox's long and tainted history of bashing the leader of our faith stood in direct opposition to the community he was tasked with building. 

But you never responded. You never acknowledged that his appointment to the Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships stood in sharp contrast with the Council's mission to "bring everyone together - from both the secular and faith-based communities." 

In fact, you never even acknowledged that Knox's comments were the least bit offensive, even when we gave you the benefit of the doubt that perhaps you were unaware of Knox's prejudices before appointing him.

Now that Mr. Knox has again offended millions of Catholic Americans - standing behind his brazen assertion that the Pope "is hurting people in the name of Jesus" - we can only interpret your continued silence and complicity with his grave offense as wholehearted support for this bigot and his words of hatred. 

We are now forced to demand the firing of Harry Knox. It is the only remaining action you can take to dissuade faithful Catholics that your Council is not a sham and that your "commitment to diversity" is an absolute mockery.


John Boehner
House Republican Leader
Member of Congress

Boehner's name is signed first, followed by then-Rep. Thaddeus McCotter and a pastiche of conservative and Catholic leaders like L. Brent Bozell III, president and founder of the right-wing Media Research Center; then-publisher of The American Spectator Alfred Regnery; and the Catholic League's Bill Donahue, and Phyllis Schlafly, who found the Supreme Court decision overturning DOMA "really nasty" because "the idea that anybody who stood up for traditional marriage is guilty of all the hate in his heart is just outrageous."

Now Boehner's letter does not explicitly say Knox should be fired because he was gay. Instead it says Knox was an "anti-Catholic bigot." Some of the less convincing arguments against ENDA are it represents an intolerance for intolerance (i.e. enjoying my religious freedom requires treating people with different beliefs differently), which is sort of an all-purpose to justify all sorts of discrimination. But some of the organizations calling for Knox's removal did cite his sexuality. A press release from the Catholic League president Bill Donohue about why Knox is "unfit to serve" specifically mentioned that Knox is a "sexually active homosexual" (which, Donohue suggests, is worse than being just "gay"). And when it came to the specifics of how Knox was being anti-Catholic, his advocacy of gay rights was front and center. The Media Research Center, a right-wing watchdog whose president and founder signed the same letter as Boehner, compiled a list of instances entitled "Harry Knox's Bigotry." Four of those seven instances of "bigotry" involved a gay issue or statements Knox had made  at the Human Rights Campaign. The other three involved Knox's aforementioned disagreement with Pope Benedict's stance on condoms. A quick rundown:

  • Knox was upset Vatican refused to sign a U.N. agreement that called for decriminalizing homosexuality;
  • Knox criticized the Knights of Columbus for supporting California's Prop. 8;
  • The HRC criticized the Pope for saying that same-same-sex relationships were "a destruction of God's work";
  • Knox said that a legally-wed, Wisconsin lesbian couple should be able to receive communion

One need not be gay to be in favor of gay rights, but for many gay people, their own sexuality shapes their views on these issues. "Anti-Catholic bigotry," as used by the people urging Knox be fired, seems to be defined as supporting gay rights all by itself is an affront to Catholicism.

So, in employment discrimination terms that ENDA deals in, the question would be whether or not Boehner and his cohorts wanted to fire Knox for being a gay man. Was Knox's sexuality the key issue? Is Knox's case a clear basis or need that Boehner is overlooking? Or is discrimination against gay people so blurry that Boehner honestly can't tell what discrimination looks like? And would ENDA have helped Knox if he were fired?

A closer real-work parallel to Knox's is sociologist Dr. Jodi O'Brien. In 2010, she was offered the job of dean at Marquette University, which is Catholic. Her offer was rescinded when the university learned that she is a lesbian and has written about same-sex marriage. The university said that O'Brien lacked "the ability to represent the Marquette mission and identity."

Marquette's president at the time, Rev. Robert A Wild, told reporters that they "found some strongly negative statements about marriage and family." O'Brien's work at the time included chapters on "Queer Christian Identities," "Queer Christian Social Movements," and same-sex marriage.

"This is discrimination based on sexual orientation, and is a complete betrayal of our commitment to human dignity and diversity," Nancy E. Snow, a professor of philosophy at Marquette told The New York Times. Snow along with members of the university's student body and faculty were outraged, and O'Brien was stunned and disappointed.

While there are murky cases like Knox's and O'Brien, where the university said she was fired because of what she wrote and not who she is, there are stories where gay people have said they were discriminated for something as simple as "liking" a gay rights page on Facebook. In some cases it's a bit more clear-cut, like when someone is fired after coming out. 

Trying to figure out if ENDA would help Knox if he were hypothetically fired isn't simple — he's a presidential appointee and not a regular case of employment. And more to the point: Boehner and his friends don't have the power to fire Knox; they were asking someone who does, Obama, to do so.

But what if, hypothetically, Knox was fired for the reasons that Boehner gave in his letter? ENDA only gives basic hiring/firing protection for an "individual’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity." Because Boehner and his friends couched their terms in euphemisms, it'd be up to Knox's hypothetical lawyer to make the argument that he was fired because of his sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation. That could be a tough case.

But we do know what ENDA would have done for O'Brien: diddly-squat. The bill is packed with religious exemptions for corporations, associations, educational institutions, and societies. And those exemptions would have applied to Marquette. "Even if ENDA is passed, churches will still be able to fire gay janitors. Catholic hospitals could still refuse to hire gay administrators. And Christian colleges will still be able to pressure gay professors to resign," The Huffington Post explained.  If O'Brien were rescinded an offer at a public university like Berkeley, ENDA would hypothetically be able to help her.

ENDA isn't a magic bullet that's going to solve every gay discrimination problem. It's not meant to be. It's meant to be a start and to protect people from being fired because of who they are. And it instills the message that someone's ability to their job isn't hampered by who they sleep with. And its passage could help prevent someone who isn't a presidential employee like Knox keep their job in the face of people, like Boehner, who think otherwise.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.