Courts To Corporations: Can't Fire Christians For Faith

DENVER — Albert Buonanno loves homosexuals, cross dressers and transsexuals. During a 24-year Air Force career, two of his close civilian male colleagues wore dresses to work. At AT&T Broadband, he volunteered to help furnish the starter home of a young homosexual colleague.

No one would call him a bigot — with the possible exception of a major American corporation that fired him for failing to value diversity.

“Jesus hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors,” said Buonanno, 47, a devout Baptist. “I'm supposed to love my neighbor as I love myself. I go out of my way to find the people who are rejected by society, who are different in some way, in order that I can live up to the challenge to love them as Jesus does.”

Yet AT&T fired Buonanno because he wouldn't state in writing that he would personally “value” the differences among all people, including homosexuals and others whose conduct he considers sinful. Buonanno was happy to value the sinner but not the sin.

“They wanted me to lie, or to deny my faith,” he said. “I couldn't do that, so I got fired.”

Buonanno sued AT&T, now owned by Comcast, for violating his religious freedoms. He won, and U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger awarded Buonanno $146,269 on April 8. The award was based mostly on lost wages and benefits.

Krieger ruled that by firing Buonanno, AT&T violated Title 7 federal anti-discrimination laws that forbid workplace discrimination on grounds of race, religion, national origin and sexual orientation. In her decision, Krieger explained she would not order Buonanno reinstated at AT&T-turned-Comcast because he did not request it. Buonanno said he doesn't desire his job back, as he's happier working as a residential counselor at a Denver group home for mentally ill homeless people.

“I applaud the court for saying that if you hold personal, moral views an employer cannot force you to abandon them in order to keep your job,” said Tim Dore, an attorney and the executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference.

‘Business Ethics’

Comcast officials did not return calls to the Register, but an unnamed executive told the Washington Times that the company might appeal. Buonanno said if Comcast appeals, he might push for punitive damages — something he didn't do the first time.

“It was never about money,” Buonanno said. “It was about taking a stand in the name of Jesus.”

Buonanno's lawyer, Jim Rouse of Denver, said the judge's decision sets precedent that should comfort any person who wishes to keep a job without having to scrap religious and moral values at the whims of an employer.

“This case shows that companies can't use their diversity and anti-discrimination policies to discriminate against religious people,” Rouse said. “In court, the top guy in AT&T's personnel division said that employees must value any alternative lifestyle conduct. It's mind control stuff. It's corporate America forcing an ideology on us — discriminating against people of moral conviction under the guise of an anti-discrimination and diversity policy that's purportedly in the interest of sales and marketing.”

Buonanno was hired Jan. 10, 1999, by TCI — an old cable TV giant that would become AT&T Broadband before getting swallowed by Comcast. Buonanno had just retired from the Air Force as a master sergeant who had overseen dispatch and transportation units and managed a fuels operation in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm. TCI hired him to dispatch cable installers.

A few months after Buonanno began his new job, AT&T bought TCI. Some two years later, in January 2001, the personnel office at AT&T Broadband handed a new employee handbook to Buonanno and the company's nearly 50,000 other employees.

The handbook included a section called “Doing What's Right: Business Integrity & Ethics Policies.” In that section was language about homosexuals and others at AT&T. It stated that “diversity is necessary for a competitive business advantage and the company is competing for customers in an increasingly diverse marketplace.”

No Choice

Then came the statement that troubled Buonanno the most: “Each person at AT&T Broadband is charged with the responsibility to fully recognize, respect and value the differences among all of us.”

Even more troubling to Buonanno was the fact he was required to sign a “Certificate of Understanding” that would have contractually bound him to abide by the “value the differences” statement.

“They wanted me to sign something that said I ‘valued’ differences, some of which I consider sinful,” Buonanno said. “I have no problem valuing the person who represents these differences, and I have shown that my whole life. But I shouldn't be required to value what I consider to be sin.”

Buonanno was by all accounts an exemplary employee without a blemish on his record — a fact acknowledged in court even by those whom he was suing. In keeping with his character, Buonanno respectfully expressed his handbook objection to his supervisor, who suggested he take it up with AT&T human resources manager Susan Batliner.

Buonanno prepared a short written objection for Batliner, explaining that the contract he was asked to sign would compromise his beliefs.

“In order for me to comply with this diversity statement in the company handbook, I would have to deny my faith; this I will not do,” Buonanno wrote. “… I can't allow any group or individual to choose for me what I must respect or place value on.”

Buonanno gave his word in writing that he would remain “fully cognizant of the fact that there is diversity” at AT&T and that he would continue to conduct himself in the professional manner he was known for. He agreed to sign any agreement that said he would not “discriminate against, harass, nor retaliate” against any employees.

None of that mattered to Batliner, who ordered Buonanno's termination for failure to agree in writing to value all differences among employees. Batliner did not return calls from the Register.

In court, David Brunick, senior vice president for human relations at Comcast, removed any doubt about Buonanno's claim that AT&T was trying to dictate his moral and religious thoughts. Brunick said he fully intended the handbook to require that employees “value” any disparate attributes, behaviors and beliefs — not just employees who represent those characteristics. In other words, it wasn't okay for Buonanno to love the sinner and hate the sin.

Brunick's demand that employees value all differences didn't win hearts and minds when he was asked in court whether a Jewish employee should “value” the difference between himself and a fellow Muslim employee who believes that Jews should die.

In a rambling reply, Brunick said the Jew would have to comply with company policy.

“This isn't Nazi Germany,” Buonanno said of Brunick's “values” dictate. “In Nazi Germany they forced beliefs on people. In America, we aren't supposed to do that.”

Compared to Race

Krieger's ruling was seen as a setback by the leader of at least one major organization that fights for acceptance of homosexuals, bisexuals and transsexuals.

“If this were about race, few reasonable people would balk at signing something that says we must ‘value’ people of another race,” said Jean Hodges, chair of Colorado Parents Families and Friends of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgendered. “I think he [Buonanno] wouldn't sign because he views the issue of homosexuality as a lifestyle choice, and we simply disagree that it's a behavior or a choice.”

Buonanno said his case should not be viewed as a challenge to homosexual rights.

“This wasn't about homosexuality,” Buonanno said. “That was just a small part of it because it happened to be mentioned in the handbook. It was about my concern that a major American corporation wants to force us to value differences, no matter what they are, without regard to our own personal values. I've worked very successfully for decades with homosexuals, atheists, Wiccans, Jehovah's Witnesses and others who have beliefs different from mine. Do I ‘value’ all that makes them different from me? No. Am I required to value that which would make a Satanist different from me? Not in this country.”

Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.