Fired Maine reporter gains religious aid

Posted April 05, 2010, at 9:44 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Two national religious groups have taken up the case of a Waterville journalist nearly five months after he was fired for allegedly voicing support for the repeal of Maine’s same-sex marriage law.

Larry Grard, an 18-year veteran reporter at the Morning Sentinel, was dismissed last November after his employer discovered that he responded to an e-mail from an organization that favored same-sex marriage.

Grard said, as a Christian, he was offended by some of the rhetoric contained in an e-mail from the Human Rights Campaign of Washington, D.C., that blamed the outcome of Maine’s same-sex marriage vote on hatred of gays. Using his private e-mail account, Grard responded:

“Who are the hateful, venom-spewing ones? Hint: Not the Yes on 1 crowd. You hateful people have been spreading nothing but vitriol since this campaign began. Good riddance!”

He was fired after management at MaineToday Media, which owns the Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta and the Morning Sentinel, found out about the e-mail.

Now, Grard, who said he simply was responding to what he felt was hate speech directed at Christians, is fighting his dismissal with the help of two groups committed to preserving religious rights.

The Catholic League of New York, the nation’s largest Catholic civil rights organization, and the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission of California both are providing counsel to Grard as he pursues legal options.

Grard’s attorney, Michael Pospis with the New York law firm the Boyd Group, said he recently submitted paperwork with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is the first step toward filing a formal federal lawsuit. Grard also has filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission.

“We look forward to pursuing all available state and federal remedies in light of what appears to be a textbook case of religious discrimination,” Pospis said in an e-mail Monday.

In addition, the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission has begun targeting advertisers of Grard’s former employer, MaineToday Media, and encouraging consumers to boycott them.

The Christian Anti-Defamation Commission — a not-for-profit organization whose purpose is to champion Christian religious liberty and to respond to anti-Christian defamation, bigotry, and discrimination — recently sent letters to MaineToday Media advertisers asking them to stop advertising. Those who declined are now on a list of boycotted businesses that the group has sent to Mainers who supported the “Yes on 1” campaign last November.

“We are determined to get justice for Larry, who stood with the majority of the citizens of Maine to defend marriage,” the group said in a statement. “We can’t sit back and allow a Christian to be fired simply for standing up for biblical values.”

Gary Cass, executive director of the anti-defamation commission, said his group’s actions are independent of Grard’s legal battle, but he believes the former reporter was discriminated against.

Richard Connor, head of MaineToday Media, said the anti-defamation commission’s efforts have failed to gain any traction.

“This is a group from California that has a clear religious and political agenda, and they are attempting to interject that into a personnel issue and a journalistic issue,” Connor said. “They are using him as a pawn in a bigger conversation.”

Connor said advertisers have said they are angry about being put on any list.

“They want nothing to do with this,” he said.

Regarding Grard’s dismissal, MaineToday Media’s publisher referred to a statement released last December in which he denied that Grard’s firing had anything to do with his beliefs about same-sex marriage.

“Mr. Grard’s admitted improper and unacceptable conduct, lack of judgment and associated behavior constituted a serious breach of the legitimate employee and journalistic expectations of company management,” the letter read.

Tom Bell, a reporter for the Portland Press Herald and head of the Portland Newspaper Guild, which represents Morning Sentinel newsroom employees, said the guild filed a grievance on Grard’s behalf after his sudden dismissal.

Bell said that the company’s union contract contains language that calls for progressive discipline when dealing with an employee. “There are a series of steps you take before you fire someone,” he said.

Grard, who said he had never been disciplined in 18 years, never had that chance.

According to Bell, the union recently negotiated a settlement for Grard. Although he couldn’t provide details of the settlement offer, Bell said the deal was satisfactory from the union’s perspective.

Grard, however, has not accepted the offer.

“Evidently, he thinks he can do better on his own,” Bell said. “The guild has decided not to pursue arbitration.”

Michael Socolow, a journalism professor at the University of Maine who teaches media ethics, said Grard’s case may become more common in ever-changing newsrooms.

“In the era of Facebook and blogging and multiple e-mail address, reporters have to be extra sensitive in interacting with audiences,” he said. “Reporters never used to have the kind of direct communication with their audience that they have today.”

Socolow said Grard likely erred by engaging with a reader the way he did but also said, “Reporters need freedom to do the job.”

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