Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

Do employees have a right to wear clothes that promote political messages? Even if those messages violate the beliefs of the business owner? Those questions are making state news. An Elizabethtown specialty food market owner asked one of her employees to not wear T-shirts with a political message. The employee, Tyler Sauer refused to comply and was promptly fired.

The T-shirt depicted two megaphones and the words, “Just Us For All: LGBTQ Advocacy creating change through community." The owners of Herb and Olive and adjacent Vibe Coffee shop, Serena Erizer and Lori Smith issued a statement saying “We have always welcomed everyone into our businesses and will continue to do so.”  At the same time, they said controversial T-shirt messages weren't appropriate for either of their workplaces. Consequently, the Kentucky Fairness Campaign protested both businesses last week. 

Maybe this could have been avoided if the business owners had a written policy spelling out a dress code. Perhaps. But before the other side rushes to judgment, imagine if the shoe was on the other foot where an employee with a T-shirt promoting Jesus offended a business owner who ordered them not to wear it. There would be an equal stir from conservatives.

Chris Hartman, executive director of the Fairness Campaign, argues that Sauer had every right to wear his advocacy T-shirt and that a Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) law would have protected him.  SOGI laws prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodations. Nine Kentucky cities have similar laws and The Fairness Campaign aims to make Elizabethtown the 10th.

Such proposed ordinances veto business owners' policies and underscore precisely how SOGI laws might trample a business owner's right to maintain a workplace in accord with their values and ability to keep it free from potentially divisive politicization. As it is, business owners of all political persuasions have the freedom to set workplace rules and expectations for dress. A SOGI law would stack the deck against those who happen to have different opinions on LGBT issues and standards for workplace activism, and such a heavy-handed action would create friction for any business.

Fairness and tolerance are pillars of the LGBT cause, but when the pillars are defined in certain ways, only applicable to certain people, and relevant to certain causes, they inevitably become a foundation for discrimination against those with conservative views on human sexuality.

If the idea of fairness truly applied to all sides regarding workplace apparel, conservative employees should be allowed to wear T-shirts with politically conservative messages even over the objections of a liberal business owner. But who wants that kind of confrontational drama in their workplace?

It seems a little understanding and respect would go a long way here.  Employees must understand and be mindful of the values of their employer especially in jobs that are very public. Respect should be mutual. And to avoid potential controversies employers should make clear workplace expectations and dress requirements before a controversy arises. 

We'll probably see similar situations arise with other businesses in other Kentucky communities, but they can be avoided when people of differing persuasions clothe themselves with humility, work toward mutual understanding, and learn to respect each other. It's called civility. And when this is pursed it would lead to a better vibe in the workplace.