What Happened When Religious Freedom and Gay Rights Actually Clashed in Court

The story of the only major U.S. legal case involving a for-profit employer firing an LGBT person for reasons of faith

Masterfile / Corbis / jiris / Shutterstock / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

In 1985, the Minnesota Supreme Court took on an unusual case. The state had sued three owners of a gym chain called Sports & Health Club, Inc. for discrimination. It alleged they had fired, not hired, or otherwise mistreated employees who, according to the owners, lived in ways that were “antagonistic to the Bible.” Per court documents, this included “individuals living with but not married to a person of the opposite sex; a young, single woman working without her father's consent or a married woman working without her husband's consent; a person whose commitment to a non-Christian religion is strong; and … fornicators and homosexuals.”

The owners of Sports & Health lost. Damages were awarded. The clubs were shut down. Justice, ostensibly, was served, and the case resolved.

Surprisingly enough, McClure vs. Sports & Health Club is the only example of a major U.S. court case in which for-profit business owners claimed that employing a gay person violated their religious beliefs, according to the University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock. Last year’s Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage has raised the prospect that many more such cases lie ahead.

This obscure, 31-year-old court case is now one of the only available guides for understanding the long-term consequences of a conflict that is becoming more and more common in American life: the clash between gay rights and religious beliefs. To defenders of religious liberty, McClure could serve as a warning of the dangers of an oppressive state. To advocates of gay rights, it stands as a useful precedent for the defense of individual freedom. But for those who were involved in the case, it is also something else: a reminder that by the time such fights go to court, no one involved is likely to win.

There are a number of possible reasons why McClure stands alone on the legal landscape, but a big one is this: Before gay marriage became legal in the United States, there weren’t many reasons for people to tell their employers they were gay, and there weren’t many ways for employers to find out. Not so at Sports & Health. According to court documents, managers quizzed employees and prospective hires about their faith and behavior, and they openly discussed their opposition to homosexuality.

Even if employers did know about their employees’ sexuality and fired them for being gay, it would have been difficult for employees to prove they were subject to discrimination. Many states didn’t outlaw this kind of bias—even now, twenty-eight states don’t ban this kind of employment discrimination. Neither does the federal government, except in limited cases. But decades ago, Minnesota was far ahead of most of the rest of the country on this. Judges interpreted Sports & Health Club’s employment practices as violations of the state’s Human Rights Act. And just a few years later, the state would become one of the first in the country to outlaw employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the first to include gender identity in its definition of sexual orientation.

Now, as waves of newly married same-sex couples ask their employers for spousal benefits, bias against gay people in the workplace has suddenly become a lot easier to act upon, and a lot easier to prove. In the coming months, many states will wrestle with this issue in their legislatures, including figuring out how to deal with calls for exemptions for religious individuals, organizations, and possibly businesses. While they’re deliberating, though, LGBT discrimination claims may very well make their way to the courts. For three decades, McClure has been a distinctive case of religiously based LGBT employment discrimination. It seems unlikely to be unusual much longer.

* * *

Sandi Larson is the daughter of Arthur Owens, one of the defendants. Of the many individuals involved in this class-action case, some have died, and some couldn’t be tracked down. Several were unwilling to speak with me. But Larson was one of two who agreed to share their stories.

After they were sued, she said, the three Sports & Health owners mostly parted ways. Her family had money troubles. Her dad didn’t work much after the gyms were closed, and in 1993, her parents relocated to Texas. “Quite honestly, my mother did not have any happy feelings whatsoever about Minnesota and everything they had been through there,” Larson said. “I think [she] was never happier than the day they moved.” Her other four sisters declined, through their sister, to talk to me.

“My dad’s vision—his main goal in business—was to glorify the Lord.”

Sandi Larson describes her father with the fondness of a youngest daughter: He was soft-spoken, if opinionated; gentle, if strict. The Owens family was evangelical and church-going, attending the non-denominational Calvary Memorial Church in Navarre, Minnesota, throughout Larson’s childhood. To her, there is no way to separate her father’s faith and his methods of running Sports & Health, where he was president.

“My dad started health clubs before the gym was the popular thing to do,” she said. “The thing for him was whole health: physical, mental, and spiritual health. It wasn’t just about your body; it was about the whole thing.”

“As long as they weren’t antagonistic toward Christians or toward the Bible, they still had the opportunity to be there.”

Larson remembers the environment of the Sports & Health clubs much as court documents describe it: copies of the Good News for Modern Man Bible on display, magazines like Christianity Today laid out for perusal. Some of the materials were more didactic. According to a separate suit against the clubs concerning a gay man whose membership was revoked, the LaSalle branch of Sports & Health in downtown Minneapolis featured a number of bulletin boards in the early ’80s. One was titled “Christianity Versus False Cults”; another, “What God Thinks of Homosexuality.” But the club wasn’t only open to Christian employees and members, Larson said. “As long as they weren’t antagonistic toward Christians or toward the Bible, they still had the opportunity to be there.”

The litigation against Sports & Health was drawn out over many years. Somewhat ironically, the clubs seemed to have been a big part of the late ’70s, early ’80s Minneapolis gay scene—as a somewhat tone-deaf court decision described it, “Membership at the LaSalle Branch during this period included a significant number of homosexuals.” As the management received complaints about sexual activity in the gym, court records say, the club began “‘cracking down’ on its homosexual members. It enforced special unwritten ‘sodomite’ rules against homosexual members to foreclose opportunities for what it considered to be inappropriate behavior. It required homosexual members to use facilities and services promptly and broke up any congregating or socializing by homosexuals.”

Larson, who worked in the gym office off and on during high school, doesn’t remember the clubs having special rules banning gay people—“it wasn’t that they wouldn’t allow homosexuals to be there, it’s just that they couldn’t act out what they were doing,” she said. When the first lawsuit against the club came up, “The attorneys actually laughed, thinking there’s no way they’d lose this. And they did,” she said. “Things just really, really snowballed.”

Looking back over the cases, which later included the accusations of employment discrimination, Larson said, “It’s interesting to me how twisted any reports have been on it, and even when I read through the actual court cases, how much real information is left out. It’s written very one-sided.” She said newspapers cherry-picked quotes from the proceedings; articles would make her dad “sound like he was crazy,” as she put it. “Overall, it has made me very not trusting of the news.”

Three decades on, court documents, testimony and news reports are pretty much the only records of what happened at Sports & Health. But this is the story as Larson remembers it—the story she took with her when her family of six moved to Anchorage, the story she remembers when she reads stories about Christian bakers who don’t want to serve gay wedding ceremonies, which came up during our conversation. And it’s a story that she and her siblings don’t talk about much. “It’s a chapter you’d like not to have to deal with,” she said.

* * *

More than 3,000 miles away in Minnesota, Pam Lindgren remembers a different story about Sports & Health. She started working at one of the clubs in Bloomington, south of Minneapolis, right after New Year’s in 1984, when she was around 27. She’d always been in restaurants and hospitality, but a back injury meant she couldn’t stay on at the Ramada Inn, where she had been a sous chef. At the gym, she worked in sales and did some personal training.

Even before Lindgren got the job, it was clear that religion was big at Sports & Health. Court documents say “company officials stressed the club's Christian philosophy during the interview, and Lindgren was told that attendance at Thursday Bible-study sessions was required of all associate membership directors. Lindgren, who was a member of a Pentecostal church congregation in Minneapolis, was not disturbed by the employment interview.”

In the early months of her time at the gym, Lindgren gamely went to the Bible-study sessions. But that wasn’t enough. The club manager, John Stewart, invited her to attend services with him a few times. “The church they had was pretty pompous, pretty arrogant, white pearly gates, everything else, over in Edina,” she said. “I said I already belonged to church. And they didn’t push the issue, but then they started pushing a little bit more, and a little bit more, kind of like grooming you.” He also invited her to go “witnessing” for Christ on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, which took the form of protesting outside of an LGBT bar, the Gay 90s, Lindgren said. “They called it Sodom and Gomorrah. They also called the downtown Sports & Health club, they called that Sodom and Gomorrah because it had mostly gay patrons.”

The thing is, when Lindgren stopped by the Gay 90s, it was usually to go dancing. Lindgren is a lesbian, although that wasn’t necessarily obvious to her employers. “I didn’t look gay, back in the day, I wasn’t that stereotypical,” she said. “Back then, you weren’t public about being gay or being out. You didn’t say it.” When she started working at Sports & Health, her private life had to change, too—skipping Saturday-night gay-bar outings, for instance. “God forbid somebody from Sports & Health Club sees me,” she said. “You get paranoid. Your social life kind of goes downhill.”

“He asked if I was a practicing homosexual. And this woman said, ‘You should have told him you don’t have to practice anymore.’”

On July 11, 1984, Lindgren was in the locker room of Sports & Health, shirt off, towel around her waist, about to get in the sauna after a workout. A woman she worked with as a personal trainer approached her for advice on building biceps more like Lindgren’s. “I wanted to tell her, ‘You can’t, sorry.’” Lindgren chuckled. “But I said, ‘This is what I do, but we can add this to your next routine.’ That is all that was.”

Someone, though, reported the encounter to the gym’s staff. The patron in question was “a known homosexual throughout the club,” Lindgren said. “She was tomboy-ish. She was butch. I don’t know how else to say it other than: She looked your stereotypical gay, just like people would say, back in the day.”

That night, the club manager, Stewart, called her at home to question her about why she would talk to a gay patron in the locker room without a shirt on. According to court documents, he “told her that homosexuality was against the word of God and that association with homosexuals was anti-Christian. He quoted Bible passages to her in an attempt to support these views.” As she remembers it, “I was in bed with a female, and I get this phone call, and why I picked up I don’t know, I always pick up when work calls even to this day—work needs me. And he asked if I was a practicing homosexual,” Lindgren said. “I was right next to this woman, and she said, ‘You should have told him you don’t have to practice anymore.’”

Shortly thereafter, Lindgren was informed that she would no longer be working at Sports & Health. State attorneys contacted her to participate in a class-action suit, joining others who claimed they were fired or mistreated because of their marital status or religious practices. After waiting for what she said was probably somewhere between 4 and 6 months, she agreed to participate—and testify. “That was the hardest part, to be public about it, I guess,” Lindgren said. When she was questioned in court, “They didn’t say, ‘Are you gay?’ or whatever. It was more about the berating, the phone calls, everything else: How did that feel?” She did end up saying that she is a lesbian while she was on the stand. “Nobody from Sports & Health showed up, but that that had to be out there in public court record was embarrassing enough,” she said.

There’s an obvious question in all of this. “Why didn’t I quit? I can take a lot. I guess that’s why,” Lindgren said. “I was waiting to get the clearance from my doctor to go back to my other job. I liked what I was doing, I liked the people, I liked the personal training, I got to actually rehab my back at the same time. I don’t know. I just think I’m not a quitter.”

That doesn’t mean, though, that the environment didn’t affect her. “After a while, [you] just get heavy shoulders. You probably don’t stand up as straight as you’d like,” she said. She felt “belittled. Berated. Humiliated. Not good enough. Less-than. And what really pissed me off is they were trying to make me feel like a less-Christian than anyone else.”

The court said her “mental anguish and suffering” was worth $3,500—a paltry enough sum, but even more so because she never got most of her money. After the state Supreme Court’s decision, she waited 15 years, four months, and four days to receive any of the money she was awarded. Even then, she only got $6,092.12—about a quarter of what she was owed, once interest was factored in. Thirty years later, she cried on the phone talking about what had happened at that Minnesota gym.

“What really pissed me off is they were trying to make me feel like a less-Christian than anyone else.”

Not everyone made the same choice as Lindgren. A lot of her gay, male friends who were working at the club’s downtown location quit, she said. But at that time, there also weren’t a lot of other places in the Twin Cities where people could work in fitness—Sports & Health “had a monopoly,” she said. If you were a gay person living in Minneapolis in the ’70s and ’80s, and you wanted to work at a gym, Sports & Health was pretty much your only choice.

There are a lot of things that are different today in cities like Minneapolis and across the United States, more gyms being just one of them. “When Sports & Health was happening, you had your respite that you could go to the gay community to get some support,” Lindgren said. “It’s like there were two worlds. And there still [are]. You just don’t need the separation so much nowadays with the openness and acceptance of gay folk.”

As the false barrier between those “two worlds,” between being gay and being human, breaks down, there will be new pain: that of exposure. Perhaps, as Lindgren says, there is less need now for “respite” from hostility and open discrimination against LGBT people. Yet, precisely because public policy and sentiment has changed and there’s more space for queer people in public life, those kinds of conflicts might plausibly come up in contexts where they wouldn’t have before, such as workplaces and wedding venues.

Christians and other religious people who believe homosexual acts are sinful, on the other hand, no longer have the comfort of being part of a silent consensus, nor the protection that comes from people wanting to keep their sexuality secret. They will have to articulate their viewpoints and take a stand for their beliefs.

After three decades that have seen major cultural and political victories for LGBT people, there are a lot more people who look like Pam Lindgren: openly gay, happily employed at the same company as her now-wife, who she’s been with for 22 years. But there are also more people like Sandi Larson and her family: distrustful of the court system and the media, feeling like they have been penalized for trying to live and spread their faith. For a case that was settled so long ago, this fall-out is distinctly unsettling. McClure vs. Sports & Health Clubs had clear winners and losers, but the case left long-lasting damage on both sides. It can be tempting to see courts and legislatures as bulwarks of protection against injustice. McClure, though, suggests that even in the clearest cases, there are intense costs to the long and public process of litigation. Moving forward, courtrooms may be the only place where these conflicts can find resolution. But they certainly don’t offer much comfort.

Additional reporting for this article was contributed by Katherine Owen and Sean McCoy.