Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Photo: The scene at the Pride Parade July 21. The Hillcrest fire station where the four firefighters work is at left and the Christian protesters are in the middle.

Firefighters Forced to March in Pride Parade

Christian Foundation Backs Them in Suit Against the City


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Four San Diego firefighters who work Engine 5 out of the Hillcrest fire station are taking legal action against the city for being ordered to participate in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Parade July 21. The men, Captain John Ghiotto, Engineer Jason Hewitt and Firefighters Chad Allison and Alex Kane, claim that their First Amendment rights of free speech and political association were violated by being forced to be part of an event whose message and purpose they did not support. They also claim that by subjecting them to sexually explicit words and gestures from members of the parade audience, the city violated its policy against sexual harassment on the job.

All four firefighters filed affidavits that have been made public. Ghiotto’s affidavit states that he first learned he might be ordered to participate in the parade on July 20, the day before it occurred, “when I received a phone call at home from the captain at 5’s giving me the heads-up that they were going to have us in the parade.” Ghiotto called his immediate supervisor, Battalion Chief Tony Pollard, who told him that if his superiors gave him a direct order to have Engine 5 participate, “he would pass it on to me. I told the chief that I would not participate in or make my crew participate in the parade unless given a direct order to do so.”

The order came through at 8 the next morning when, according to Ghiotto, “Chief Pollard told us (crew of engine 5) that we were going to take part in the parade. I told the chief that none of my crew members, including myself, wanted to participate in the parade. … I also told him that we all felt uncomfortable with the decision, and would not participate in the parade unless given a direct order.” By 9 Pollard told Ghiotto that assistant chief Jeff Carle had ordered “that engine 5 and the on-duty crew was to participate in the parade.”

Ghiotto said that he and his crew “did follow the chief’s order and took part in the parade to avoid any disciplinary action. While moving down the parade route, we were subjected to verbal abuse (‘show me your hose,’ ‘you can put out my fire,’ ‘give me mouth to mouth,’ ‘fuck you, fireman’), sexual gestures (showing their penis, blowing kisses, grabbing their crotch, rubbing their nipples, tongue gestures, flipping us off). We were subject to this type of abuse and more throughout the parade route. You could not even look at the crowd without getting some type of sexual gesture. Even the Christian protesters were giving us grief for being a part of this.” The other three firefighters offered similar descriptions of the taunts and sexual gestures they received from people watching the parade, and the reaction of the Christian counter-protesters as they drove past.

Engineer Hewitt said in his affidavit that Chief Pollard told him at 2 p.m. the day before the parade “that every year the department goes through this situation of trying to find people to drive a fire apparatus in the parade and I’m tired of it! This parade is in engine 5’s district and engine 5 is going to be in it! So be prepared to possibly be given a direct order. They haven’t told me to give in yet, but if they do I will give the direct order! If you refuse the direct order, then you will be suspended for the rest of the shift and I’ll get someone else.”

According to Hewitt, he felt intimidated because he was not only being told he might be ordered to participate in an event he did not support, he was being threatened with long-term damage to his career if he refused. He described his thoughts this way: “If I go into work tomorrow, and I am given a direct order to be in the Gay Pride Parade and I refuse, I will be suspended for the remainder of the shift. This is what our discipline manual says, and because of this suspension I will no longer be eligible on the current captain’s list. Also I will not be eligible on the next captain’s test or any other special assignment for the next two years. … I felt like I was being harassed about being involved in the Gay Pride Parade. If I refused the possible director order, I had to take into consideration my future in my career and any possible promotional process or career opportunities. This wasn’t right! I was forced into a situation that would compromise what I hold true and what I believe in, my reputation, my character, my integrity, my morals, and my religion.” (Emphasis Hewitt’s.)

Hewitt also said that, unlike other big events in which the fire department participates — Fourth of July celebrations, Street Scene, the Qualcomm Stadium Sky Show and the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon — “we had no plan of how do we get out of the parade if something happens. No medical bike teams to assist with medical emergencies and no alternative means of emergency response routes planned out.” He said that putting a fire crew in the middle of an event drawing 150,000 people with no emergency plan put “our safety and the public’s safety” at risk.

A part of Hewitt’s affidavit explained how engine 5 got ordered to be in the parade in the first place. Another fire crew, led by Captain Trish Stone, had volunteered to be in the parade and her crew members had all agreed to participate. “But her engineer, Pat White, had a family emergency and she had to make a last-minute trade” — and the person who agreed to take White’s shift refused to be in the parade. Hewitt questioned why his team, just because it is stationed in Hillcrest, was ordered to be in the parade when another firefighter from another station was given the right to refuse to participate.

Chad Allison’s affidavit stressed that he did not share Hewitt’s moral and religious objections to the parade, but he too participated only out of fear that he would be disciplined. “I have a Gay uncle who had been very active in my upbringing and still plays an important role in my life,” Allison wrote in his affidavit. “From inside the fire engine while we sat in staging, I saw my uncle’s life partner and their roommate. While I was already feeling that I was being harassed, I did not want to disrespect my uncle’s life partner, whom I also refer to as ‘uncle.’ … I walked up to my ‘uncle’ and gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek. I then gave their roommate a hug.”

According to Allison, his attempt at a familial gesture of affection backfired big-time. “When I began to greet them, I overheard a man say, ‘Oh, the fireman is giving out hugs. I hope he gives me one.’ I also saw a man gesture to his shirt, which read, ‘Have you ever ridden a fat man?’ I became so distraught and uncomfortable that my knees began to shake. I did not mention my objection to my participation in the parade to my ‘uncle’ because I did not want him to think that I objected to his cause or his pride. That, I felt and still feel, was a different issue.”

Allison said that he wore a headset over his ears throughout the parade to try to keep from hearing the sexual taunts from men in the audience, but he heard them anyway. At first he would wave back to spectators who waved at him, “but on at least three separate occasions, sexual gestures were directed at me in response to my waves.” When the fire truck passed the Christian protesters — who were stationed, as usual, in a dead-end street next to the fire station from which these firefighters work — “they told us that we were going to go to hell for supporting the Gay lifestyle. I took the comment with a grain of salt because I did not agree with them, but I felt uncomfortable being in the confrontational environment.”

Alex Ross’s affidavit said that he “was in disbelief” when he was told his unit was being ordered to participate in the parade and that he “felt like Engine 5 was in the parade as entertainment for the crowds.” Ross said that when the engine passed the protesters, “They began to lecture us on how we were bad people for supporting this [parade]. This really struck deep because I am a Christian. I felt this was not fair because I do not live an alternative lifestyle. I was ordered by my department to be in this parade against my own wishes and beliefs.”

The firefighters’ case ended up in the hands of local attorney Charles S. LiMandri, West Coast director of the Thomas More Law Center. LiMandri’s office referred Zenger’s to Brian Rooney, executive director of the Thomas More Law Center, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Rooney described the organization as “a Christian nonprofit public-interest law firm” whose mission “essentially has three tenets: life, which involves conception to natural death; religious freedom for Christians; and time-honored family values.” Rooney said his group passed its first legal hurdle — getting a right-to-sue letter from the city — on August 17 and expected to have the suit filed within the week.

“The main basis for the suit,” Rooney explained, “is that these firefighters were sexually harassed for three hours.” Rooney conceded that what happened to them doesn’t fit the usual definition of sexual harassment, since they didn’t allege that co-workers or supervisors were actually harassing them, but he said that San Diego’s sexual harassment policy has a much more expansive definition that forbids “putting employees in a sexually harassing framework.” Rooney said the suit will also claim that the city violated the firefighters’ First Amendment right to free speech because “these men were made to speak in a forum contrary to their beliefs.”

Maurice Luque, public information officer for the San Diego Fire Department, confirmed that the firefighters were indeed ordered to participate in the Pride Parade whether they wanted to or not — and said that’s standard department policy. “The bottom line is it’s part of a firefighter’s job to participate in community events,” Luque told Zenger’s. “It’s part of what they sign on to do when they join the department.”

Luque also said that if the fire department picked and chose between requests from the community for firefighters to participate in parades and other public events, that in itself would be discrimination and would violate California law. “We can’t discriminate,” he stated. “There are laws against that. We treat all communities the same. Those are our customers, our taxpayers. They invite us to these events, and we have a responsibility and an obligation to be there when we can.”

According to Luque, if a certain team from the department volunteers to participate in a particular event, “the engine company in the district doesn’t have to” — but if there are no volunteers, the company at the fire station in the community where the event takes place can be ordered to do so. The only other reason the fire department wouldn’t be in a community event they were invited to would be, he said, if an “emergency situation” arose and the personnel and equipment were needed for firefighting.

Asked about accusations that Rooney’s organization and the firefighters themselves were exploiting this situation to attack the Queer community in general and recently appointed fire chief Tracy Jarman, an open Lesbian, in particular, Rooney said, “This argument is like blaming rape victims for what they wear. These men’s responsibility is to serve the community, not to advance a political agenda. Those making this argument have their own agenda and are being a little bit paranoid.”

Rooney said that, in addition to financial damages, the lawsuit is seeking a change in city policy to ensure “that no one will ever be forced to participate in this event against their conscience.” He said the city had offered to change its policy, but Rooney felt the proposal didn’t go far enough; “What they’re saying now doesn’t address the situation these firefighters were in, where you have a volunteer ladder and when it pulled out, these men were ordered to go. That’s the situation we want to avoid in the future.”