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No justice for rejected Gay volunteers
No justice for rejected Gay volunteers
by Chris Nielsen - Special to the SGN

Adding insult to injury would aptly describe a recent, long-awaited ruling by the Washington State Human Rights Commission in answer to a complaint filed by a Gay couple who was shown the door when they tried to volunteer at a religious organization's hot meal program.

In March 2008, Tad Erichsen and John Footh were turned away from the His Supper Table hot meal program in the tiny coastal community of Long Beach, Wash. where they both reside. They were told in no uncertain terms by then-Meal Program Director Mike Renfro that they were refused the opportunity to volunteer solely because they were Gay.

"We were told that our being there, a Gay couple, would create a 'hostile work environment,'" says Erichsen.

Following the incident the two men filed a formal complaint with the Washington State Human Rights Commission. Both Erichsen and Footh made this decision since they felt they would be protected by beefed up Washington state anti-discrimination legislation, which in 2006 was revised to include sexual orientation and gender expression.

When the complaint was filed, the Commission's former director, Marc Brenman, stated that the couple being turned away from a volunteer situation by a religious organization was a gray area, in terms of its First Amendment rights. He said religious organizations can pick and choose who they allow in as members and who they can hire to work at their organizations.

At the same time Brenman said there was the possibility the state's anti-discrimination legislation might come down on the side of Erichsen and Footh in terms of their trying to volunteer, indicating the incident could be a violation of the public accommodation section of the Washington state anti-discrimination legislation after the 2006 revisions. He said at the time he had never heard of Gay or Lesbian people being turned away as volunteers.

That was in June of 2008. And it was only last week that the Commission finally issued a decision, in favor of His Supper Table. Erichsen and Footh were made aware of the ruling during an "exit interview" conducted via phone on January 21 by Commission Investigator Teresita Torres, who was assigned the case when the complaint was filed in May of 2008. Torres stated in the ruling that a religious organization such as His Supper Table had the First Amendment on its side and could discriminate against Gay or Lesbian people when it comes to volunteering.

Torres said in the exit interview with the couple that His Supper Table, or any religious organization for that matter, can turn anyone away if they do not want them volunteering.

"That First Amendment issue, there is no getting around it," said Torres. "It gives organizations such as His Supper Table the right to associate with whomever it chooses."

Torres said people can be turned away by a religious organization "if they don't want people of a different religion, or Gay orientation or whatever other protected class."

When asked why it took over eight months to issue a final ruling, Torres replied it was due to time spent on research and interviews. But as far as can be ascertained, besides Erichsen and Footh, only a tiny handful of other people were interviewed. One such person was Nancy Holmes, a former volunteer at His Supper Table, who corroborated the discriminatory antics of the group. Holmes cited another incident when several Gay men were sent packing when they showed up to volunteer at the meal program in 2005, much in the same manner as Erichsen and Footh. It was this incident which led Holmes to forever walk away from the organization.

The only other Torres interview was via phone with His Supper Table Treasurer Gilbert Baker. Accompanying Baker was Long Beach Church of the Nazarene Pastor Don Bancel, and Renfro, who the couple says was the only His Supper Table staff member present when the incident took place. Renfro was never asked any questions during this interview.

Apparently the rest of the eight months Torres spent toiling away on the case was doing research, or so she claims. Multiple requests for a complete list of every person Torres corresponded with while processing the case, or a description of her research, have been ignored by Commission Executive Assistant Tanya Calahan, who is in charge of requests for public information.

Commission Interim Director Idolina Reta has stated that according to Washington state public records laws, she and her staff are only obligated to send previously prepared documents. In other words, since Torres did not keep a running list of all of her contacts, including people she conferred with during her research, the information does not need to be compiled and/or provided. Reta did admit that Commission Operations Manager Dixie Shaw had a conversation with an assistant attorney general at the Washington State Office of the Attorney General at some point in reference to the complaint.

In late November 2008, when Brenman was contacted to find out if the case had been shelved or was still being investigated, he indicated that there was trepidation on the part of the state to investigate and make a decision where a religious organization was concerned.

"It is complicated issue, the implications for religious freedom under the U.S. Constitution, and we have been looking at state and federal law," Brenman said. "The facts are complicated, namely that it is regarding volunteers at a religious organization."

One apparent reason for concern on the part of the Commission is that the His Supper Table organization, which describes itself as a coalition of several smaller local religious organizations, is closely affiliated with a very large religious organization. As it turns out, the His Supper Table meal program operates out of a Church of the Nazarene facility.

When told of the ruling, Erichsen said, "We felt at the time of the incident and still feel this is a hate crime. We showed up to volunteer, were pulled aside, asked if we were Gay, outed, and then told to hit the road. How is this not a hate crime?"

American Civil Liberties Union of Washington Communications Director Doug Honig stated he was not surprised that the His Supper Table group was deemed to be protected by the First Amendment in terms of turning away Gay and Lesbians who show up to volunteer, but added, "It always saddens me to hear of individuals being treated unequally simply because of their sexual orientation. And it's really sad that this should happen to a couple who is trying to volunteer to help people who are in need."

Human Rights Campaign Religion and Faith Program Director Harry Knox stated last summer that while a church or religious organization is allowed by law to discriminate, "it is shameful for any church to waste the gifts God is seeking to give through GLBT people." Knox went on to say he too has never heard of a religious organization, such as His Supper Table, denying someone who is GLBT the opportunity to volunteer.

The bright side of this peptic chapter in the fight for Gay and Lesbian civil rights is that Erichsen and Footh refuse to give up. They have contacted Lamda Legal since the ruling to see if there is a possibility that the group may show some interest in challenging the decision issued by the Commission.

"What is the point of beefing up the state's hate crimes legislation by adding sexual orientation as a newly protected group if it is not going to be enforced?" said Footh. "We just waited eight months to get the door slammed in our faces again."

When it comes to enduring hurtful circumstances, Erichsen and Footh have seen their fair share. The main reason the couple showed up to volunteer at the His Supper Table meal program in the first place was to return a favor. Just about a month prior to being turned away as volunteers the two went to His Supper Table to get a free meal, as they were going through financial difficulties.

"And we went back to volunteer because we wanted to pay them back for helping us out during a tough time," said Footh. "It seemed like the right thing to do. Then we got the royal treatment, and were shown the door and the group's true colors."

One thing which Erichsen and Footh want to clarify is that the His Supper Table meal program director, Mike Renfro, was fired only after a frank yet heartfelt letter was sent by the couple to their local newspaper describing the incident.

The letter was published and then for the next six weeks numerous other letters appeared, most all in support of the couple. It was only after the letters started being printed that Renfro was let go in April of 2008, according to Baker.

At the time the His Supper Table group refused to issue any sort of explanation for letting Renfro go, or a public apology for what happened to Erichsen and Footh. Instead, a letter was published in the same local paper by Baker, who cited biblical tenants why it is acceptable to discriminate against homosexuals.

No apology has ever been issued by the group to this day.

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