After an employee of the Nashville music venue/youth outreach center Rocketown was fired in late January for what appeared to be his support of same-sex marriage, and a physical altercation between the venue's staff and a member of the band Volumes that was first reported as an instance of the club objecting to his own support of gay marriage (and later debunked), a flurry of outrage and condemnation arose online, with calls to boycott the venue by fans and threatened cancelations from bands.
In the first instance, Wes Breedwell, who had worked at Rocketown for seven years, is alleged to have been fired for inappropriate behavior on social media or for wearing a T-shirt expressing support of same-sex marriage, depending on which accounts you read. The only problem is, the entire situation may have been based on a misunderstanding, or at the very least, an exaggeration. And while it certainly is distasteful for an employer to fire a worker for their political beliefs, in this case, it wouldn't have been illegal for them to do so.
Neither Breedwell, nor Rocketown—a Christian, youth-oriented non-profit that also serves as a coffee shop, skate park, and outreach center—are commenting on the matter any further, and neither returned requests for interviews. Rocketown did release the following statement January 24: “Rocketown does not comment on personnel issues, but, generally speaking, an employee would not be fired for expressing opinions on marriage. At Rocketown, we are welcoming and accepting of all youth. We reach out to all kids, are inclusive and very much care about acceptance of youth from different ethnicities, sexual orientations, financial backgrounds and religions.”
While a cynic might say the statement seems like boilerplate rhetoric from a business looking to save face, keep in mind, as a religious organization, Rocketown management don't even need to bother. Phrases like “inclusive” and “accepting of all youth” just aren't in the vernacular of religiously conservative groups. This is Tennessee, a state in which a “Don't Say Gay” bill that passed in the state Senate in 2011, but failed in the House, has resurfaced again. The bill would prevent the discussion of homosexuality in grades K-8, and require schools to inform a student’s parents if they suspect the child is gay. In that climate, Rocketown's statement makes the venue seem downright progressive. There are numerous comments online from regular attendees of Rocketown who maintain that it is, in fact, a welcoming place for LGBT youth.
Breedwell himself wasn't even the one that got the ball rolling on “Shirt-gate.” While he did post a picture of himself on Instagram wearing a T-shirt from the Connecticut band Hostage Calm, reading, “I support same-sex marriage”, he never explicitly wrote that he was fired for his stance on gay marriage or for the shirt in question. “Got fired from Rocketown today. Social media is what did it,” he wrote on his Instagram account. “So here is a picture to show my support for equality and free speech including social media....” Most of the accounts of the story included—along with Breedwell's photo—a reprimand slip he had also posted online reading, “You can't wear a shirt to work on an office day or a show day supporting same sex marriage.” The slip, however, was from a few months earlier, and is unrelated to whatever it was that led to his recent firing, said a source close to the situation who agreed to speak with us on the condition of anonymity. Or at the very least, it was merely one in a series of conflicts with the management of Rocketown. The reprimand—while certainly offensive from a moral standpoint—is well within the type of rules you might find in the employee handbook of any place of business.
It was Hostage Calm's sharing the photo and responding in outrage that led to the confusion over the issue. In a blog post titled “Equality Under Attack: A Call To Action,” the band wrote, “Today, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a longtime supporter of Hostage Calm and marriage equality was fired from his job at the Nashville music venue, Rocketown, for wearing his ‘I Support Same-Sex Marriage’ shirt to work.”
The reason the story has taken on a life of its own is because neither Breedwell nor the club will clarify their position. In Breedwell's case, that means explaining that he wasn't fired specifically for the t-shirt. In Rocketown's case, they're muddying the waters by not coming out and saying what the offense was that led to his dismissal. In addition, the venue are not acknowledging the fact he was reprimanded for wearing this shirt, regardless if that was why Breedwell was fired or not. Legally however, they don't need to, because Tennessee is an employment-at-will state. “To the employer, this means that they can terminate any employee any time they want, with cause or without, with notice or without, and are under no obligation to even provide the employee with a reason for their termination.”
Hostage Calm's Chris Martin clarified their understanding of the issue. “We're going off what Wes said, which was that he was fired for his wearing of the shirt and non-Christian Facebook activity,” he says. “He put special emphasis on the shirt, and I repeatedly asked him if he thought that was the primary reason he got fired, and he reiterated to me a few times that it was. >>
(Click through to continue to the second page.)
“As far as I know, he got fired for some chain of events, that included the T-shirt—that he thought was the crucial event—and some stuff pertaining to social media. He felt like they were policing him on that,” Martin says, pointing out that he doesn't speak for Breedwell, just relating what they talked about personally. In his estimation, Rocketown began building a paper trail of complaints against Breedwell once they realized his attitude was antithetical to their mission. The shirt was merely the straw that broke the camel's back.
“We tried to capture that in the press release,” says Martin. “We said there was the shirt and other stuff going on. The problem was, obviously with the nature of the media, the shirt is much more the headline. In his defense, he kept telling me, 'I was really fired for the shirt.' I wanted to get it right, so I didn't go out on a limb and be inaccurate. He said, ‘I really feel like the shirt was the thing,’ and the attitude he had, the shirt represented—it was sort of a rebelliousness thing. I think the note he got speaks for itself—it's quite explicit. I'm sure, as with anything, there are always things that led up to an event. He had that ideological dissonance, and I'm sure there were other times that manifested itself.”
“There were basically a conflation of things that got him fired,” explained another observer of the situation in Nashville of the Breedwell controversy. “But it had more to do with job performance. “That citation is a few months old, and it said if he did it again there would be consequences. It seems that Hostage Calm, talking on his behalf, were a little misleading or hyperbolic in how they portrayed it.
Rocketown, founded by the Christian artist Michael W. Smith in 1994, says part of its mission is to be “the place of peace, purpose and possibilities for youth... Offering hope to the next generation through Christ’s love.” To that end they host concerts, like upcoming dates with the Devil Wears Prada and Mae, among other big names. That's largely because they're the only all-ages venue big enough to hold national touring acts of that size. They also host Bible study classes and other after-school programs, like ones in which city kids can come to learn to play and record music in their studio.
The non-profit organization is run by a board of directors who oversee the general ministry, but are not involved in the music side of the operations. However, they will occasionally deny a booking from a band that is deemed too antithetical to their religious views based on lyrical content. More likely, bookers in the city simply know by now not to bother trying to secure those kinds of shows in their facility. “Unfortunately sometimes, the board makes decisions that maybe the staff agree or don't agree with,” says the club regular. “But they really can't say anything—they're just employees.”
In other words, just because you work the register at Chick-Fil-A doesn't mean you're a Christian homophobe. Or does it?
“It's fair to ask why would you still work there,” continues that same club regular. “But it's not so simple. Some people just need a job. Some people are passionate about [youth outreach], and they don't want to quit because they feel like they would be giving up. A lot of staff have built relationship with the kids over the years, regardless of how they feel about this situation, and they don't want to quit their job. They still want to be part of the music scene.”
“The thing about Rocketown, it's kind of two heads: the volunteers and staff, and then there's the board,” explains Nashville Scene reporter Lance Conzett. “The board is much more conservative than the volunteers and the staff. Rocketown is a Christian ministry; they make no bones about that. They hold these shows and have these community aspects specifically to reach out to kids who wouldn't otherwise seek out their ministry.” All kids are welcome in the space, he says. “The staff are there to help kids. It's not necessarily a Christian mission for them; it's a welfare mission for helping misunderstood or disadvantaged kids.”
As members of the Nashville music scene we've spoken to point out, there really aren't many other options for rock shows like this in the city. There isn't much proselytizing going on, a scene regular explained. “It's like when you see Christian bands play on the Warped Tour or something. You have a lot of kids coming in from suburban Tennessee who come from conservative Christian families. Some are religious themselves, and some just go because it's the place where their strict religious parents will let them go. The national acts that come through there, they're playing there because it's the only all-ages venue in town that holds 1,000-plus people.”
The venue itself is not overtly Christian, as such. In fact, you wouldn't necessarily know it was a Christian space if you weren't familiar with its mission. There are no crosses, or “Jesus loves you” signs decked throughout the music space. “They're not handing out Bibles at the door at the show; it's just something that's in the background,” Conzett says. “Once upon a time it was more visible. There was a portrait of Jesus hanging in the lobby of the place, but they've downplayed that a lot. They probably just realized it wasn't getting to the kids that probably need the most help by being super-upfront about it. They want to provide a safe place for kids.”
As Rocketown said in their statement, they wouldn't fire someone for their views on marriage, Christian-outreach mission notwithstanding. Had they actually fired Breedwell for wearing the shirt in the first place, it wouldn't have been out of bounds, according to Tennessee law, explains Jim Higgins, an employee-rights lawyer whose office is just down the street from Rocketown.“It's an employment-at-will state, really, which means you could be fired for a good reason, for a bad reason, or for no reason at all.”
You just can't be fired for a protected reason, gender, race, sex or national origin.Saying things that run contrary to your employer's beliefs on social media is still not entirely protected, despite recent guidelines laid out by the National Labor Relations Board.Those regulations are meant as protection against being fired for speaking up against illegal workplace conditions, your employer breaking the law or not paying you correctly. “But just taking a stance on how you feel about whatever issue, be it gun rights, gay marriage, those type of things,” are not protected under the law, Higgins says. (Consider the huge controversy last week over the Applebees waitress that was fired for posting a customer's receipt for another example of how social media use can result in being fired).
Breedwell released a statement through Hostage Calm, explaining that he has been through “a long pattern of discrimination against him for not being Christian and for supporting marriage equality. Over the seven years he has worked there, he’s been denied opportunities for advancement and salary based on his non-Christian beliefs,” as the Nashville Scene reported.But, paradoxically, that might not even be illegal; according to a recent Supreme Court decision which allowed for broad latitude for religious-institutions-as-employers that differentiates them from a private organization. Not only can you be fired for expressing support for gay rights if you're working for a religious group that is against them, there is still no federal law that says you can't fire someone because of their sexual orientation—and in 29 states, it's still legal to discriminate based on sexual orientation. What chance does a dude in a T-shirt have faced up against that? “Churches have an extra layer of protection. The government doesn't want to interfere with their practice of religion,” Higgins explains. “So if Rocketown can classify itself as a religious outfit... then they're going to have an extra layer of protection for who they can hire and fire.”
That doesn't mean firing someone for expressing views antithetical to the group's religion isn't morally or ethically wrong—it's just not illegal. On top of that, it might even be, sadly, good for business. 2012 was a banner year for the country's leading purveyor of chicken sandwiches and homophobia, Chick-Fil-A, after all. (Michael W. Smith performed at Chick-Fil-A founder Truett Cathy's 90th birthday party last year, and also endorsed notoriously anti-gay rights politician Rick Santorum for president). Chicken sandwiches, however, are not punk rock, where the ideals of equality and acceptance have rightfully become the norm.
This isn't even the first time Rocketown has been in the middle of a controversy. Last year their decision to ban Asking Alexandria from playing due to their lyrics resulted in an outcry online, and a petition that was forwarded along by the likes of Hayley Williams and Pete Wentz. The venue were right in banning that band, Conzett says, “because they really do go against their stated mission, and [the band] frankly were kind of dicks about it. But this is a different situation.”
It remains to be seen whether this controversy over the issue, and the slew of bands coming out against Rocketown, will have any effect. “I don't think that anything will come of this. It's a private organization; they can do what they want. They are within their rights to enforce their policies,” Conzett says. “I'm sure some bands will make a conscious decision not to play there, but where else are they going to play in Nashville if they want to play here? There aren't a lot of places that will book hardcore, or young, Christian scene bands... The bands that are for fans between ages 15-18, there's nowhere else for them to go.” alt