Robertson a sitting duck after controversial quotes released

Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson and his family are most likely not enjoying a Happy Happy Happy Holiday after his recent GQ interview hit newsstands. In the interview, Robertson is quoted as saying:

“It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”

When asked what he considered sinful, Robertson elaborated:

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men . . . .”

[For greater context and to get Robertson’s full quotes on the subject, I encourage you to read the entire GQ article, which you can find here.]

In response, A&E Networks put the eldest Robertson on “indefinite hiatus” from filming, issuing a statement saying the network is “extremely disappointed” to read Robertson’s comments, which A&E notes “are based on his own personal beliefs and not reflected in the series Duck Dynasty.”

Now, as the article points out, it should probably come as no surprise to anyone that “a deeply religious 67-year-old hunter from rural Louisiana” would hold such beliefs. But Robertson’s statements and A&E’s reaction are all over the 24-hour news cycle and the blogosphere. The attention and criticism have caused both the Governor of Louisiana and Sarah Palin to come to Robertson’s aid. Since your holiday parties and family gatherings will no doubt be overtaken by debate over this crucial issue to America’s future, I offer my thoughts here for you to use as you please. And, unlike your loud-mouth uncle, my thoughts come without the benefit of three eggnogs. Plus, I actually do this for a living.

Assuming, for the purposes of this post, that brother Phil is an employee and not an independent contractor, federal law makes it unlawful for A&E to discriminate against him because of his religion. (Most states have laws providing similar protections—Louisiana included.) If the law applies to Robertson, he may likely be able to show that A&E disciplined him “because of” his religious beliefs, i.e., that homosexuality is a sin. Even so, the company may be able to defend its actions by arguing that accommodating Robertson’s (now very public) religious views on homosexuality would be unduly burdensome.

Just last year, a federal court in Pennsylvania allowed a Baptist professor to proceed on a religious discrimination claim under similar circumstances. The professor—employed in the university’s social work department—alleged she had been harassed, denied tenure, and constructively discharged after she refused to support the LBGTQ community as requested by the university as well as the professors in her department. In response, the university argued that the professor’s anti-gay position was an expression of her social and/or political views and that allowing her to sue for religious discrimination would open the floodgates for suits over countless similarly controversial topics such as abortion, the death penalty, foreign wars, etc. The court rejected the university’s argument, however, finding the professor could proceed on her claim so long as her claims were based on her bona fide religious views, regardless of their overlap with sociopolitical opinions. The court also pointed to several other federal courts that had reached the same conclusion.

In the opinion, however, the court specifically noted that its decision to allow the professor to proceed with her lawsuit did not preclude the university from later asserting as part of its defense that the professor’s refusal to support the LGBTQ community created an undue hardship on the department and prevented the effective teaching and counseling of students. In essence, the court stated that it had not yet determined whether the decision to deny the professor tenure was based on an anti-Baptist animus or motivated by a difference of opinion as to how best to serve the educational requirements for an effective social work department.

By this same token, a company in A&E’s position would argue that accommodating Robertson’s belief that homosexuality is a sin, no matter how sincerely held, places an undue hardship on the company in that it jeopardizes the network’s ability to continually draw viewers to the show. Indeed, the Robertson family’s devotion to their religion has been one of the major selling points of the show, but that may change if viewers, particularly nonreligious viewers, perceive the family as judgmental. How all of this plays out in the court of public opinion (and, more important, whether any of the above analysis actually applies to Robertson) remains to be seen.

Happy Holidays.