While some florists and bakers have refused to serve gay couples in the name of "religious freedom," an administrative social security judge in Houston is taking that argument to a whole new level.
Judge Gary Suttles has refused to watch a 17-minute LGBT diversity training video, which gives all federal employees tips on how to treat LGBT people with respect and how to "increase cultural awareness in a diverse and inclusive environment," as Suttles's boss described it in an email to employees. After facing disciplinary action for his repeated objection, Suttles has now filed a federal lawsuit, claiming that he has faced religious discrimination in the workplace.
"The Agency's repeated direct orders to Judge Suttles to watch or read a transcript of the religiously obejectionable [video] and threatening to discipline him for his faith-based refusal is unwelcome and is sufficiently severe to create an intimidating and hostile work environment," his attorney, Robert Painter, wrote in the lawsuit.
The LGBT sensitivity video stems from a 2011 executive order from President Barack Obama directing federal agencies to develop new plans to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Last May, Suttles received an email from his superior asking all employees to carve out 17 minutes of their day sometime in the next few months to watch the video. But according to the lawsuit, Suttles responded:
"I will not be participating in this training. I am already fully aware to treat all persons with respect and dignity and have done so my entire life. Furthermore, this type of government indoctrination training does not comport with my religious views and I object on that basis as well."
(Evidently, Suttles's squeaky-clean record of treating people with respect excludes the time in 2015 he reportedly told a Gulf War Navy vet suffering from PTSD and in need of disability benefits: “I mean, hey, you were in the Navy. You weren’t even fighting on the ground. To me it would have been exciting. What do you mean stressful?” The comments sparked calls for his removal from the bench, according to the Austin-American Statesman. But, anyways.)
Suttles nor his lawyer explained in the lawsuit what exactly about the training video defies his religion. His attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
Suttles requested a religious accommodation from the Houston office's Hearing Office Chief Administrative Law Judge Monica J. Anderson, which would exempt him from the training. But Anderson denied his request, apparently also failing to see what about the "treat people how you want to be treated"-esque video could be so objectionable. According to the lawsuit, she wrote:
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"Allowing employees to remain untrained on the topics covered by the mandatory video creates a risk of liability to the agency, poses a potential harm to other employees, and threatens the agency's core public service mission. Indeed, the agency is committed to providing the highest standard of considerate, thoughtful, and culturally sensitive customer service to the public. The agency must also ensure that all employees treat each other with courtesy and consideration. In mandating all employees to view the LGBT mandatory training video, the agency is ensuring all its employees are trained about, and will comply with, agency workplace rules and EEO principles."
Since Suttles's rejection, according to the lawsuit, his employer has revoked his privileges to work from home or to transfer to a more convenient location, and has caused superiors to not trust him to do his job despite his history of good standing at the agency (besides that time the feds had to apologize for his offensive comments to the sailor, of course). Superiors have also threatened more serious discipline should Suttles continue to refuse the mandatory training.
Fearing that he will soon be fired, Suttles is asking a U.S. District Judge to block the Social Security Agency from mandating that he watch that 17-minute LGBT video, and blocking the agency from imposing any further disciplinary action.
For now, it is unclear whether Judge Suttles has the wherewithal to ascend to Kentucky clerk Kim Davis-level infamy. No judge has upheld Davis's or other stubborn florist or cake bakers' claims that religious freedom exempts them from serving or tolerating gay people in their businesses.