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. >>