15th Apr 2015

Can you be fired for being polyamorous?

A recent case from Australia says “yes”:

You won’t be surprised to know that the word “poly” comes from the Greek word “polýs” which means ‘many’.  But did you know that, earlier this year, the Federal Circuit Court of Australia in Bunning v Centacare [2015] FCCA 280 was faced with the question of whether an employee of a religious organisation could be dismissed for being “polyamorous”?   (Defined by the Oxford Dictionary to be “the practice of engaging in multiple sexual relationships with the consent of all involved.”)

Susan Bunning was employed by Centacare (a Catholic counselling organization) in the position of Clinical Practice Co-ordinator.  In 2011 or 2012 Ms Bunning became associated with the Brisbane Poly Group (a social group for those interested in open relationships and polyamory) and provided the organisation with her work contact details which were later published on their website.

About a year later Centacare dismissed Ms Bunning for serious misconduct when it became aware of her involvement with the Brisbane Poly Group. It argued that her involvement was against the moral teachings of the Catholic Church and brought Centacare into disrepute. Ms Bunning lodged a claim with the Federal Circuit Court alleging unlawful discrimination under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (SDA). While the SDA makes it unlawful to discriminate against an individual because of their sexual orientation, the key question for the court was whether being polyamorous was a relevant sexual orientation.

To Ms Bunning’s disappointment, the court held that it had no jurisdiction to hear her claim because, for the purposes of the SDA, the phrase “sexual orientation” was intended to mean “how one is” rather than a person’s sexual behavior or lifestyle.  The court said that, if polyamory could be considered a person’s sexual orientation, this would potentially lead to the absurd result where sexual behaviors such as pedophilia and necrophilia would be legally protected grounds.

In light of this decision, it seems that although a person’s sexual behavior would not be protected by anti-discrimination laws in Australia, sacking an employee for having friends with benefits could still get employers in hot water under other legal routes such as a claim for unfair dismissal or adverse action.

Poly people have had to deal with this for a long time. Polyamory still doesn’t have anything close to general acknowledgement, let alone acceptance, and there are no workplace protections for polyamorous people.

The judge’s argument is ridiculous. I agree that polyamory generally is no less a lifestyle than monogamy, but firing someone for being monogamous would in many situations justify damages due to wrongful termination. We need to ask ourselves whether we’re okay with the increasing creep of employers to punish people for their private behavior. If firing someone for wearing a green shirt when there’s no official dress policy is wrongful termination, then why should someone’s private romantic endeavors be any less protected when they’re even more important to a person’s identity and quality of life?

I think firing her because she used her work information for an organization they don’t agree with is more valid than firing her for purely private actions. That said, they cited her membership in the Brisbane Poly Group itself as their grounds for firing her, which would still be illegal under any reasonable workplace protection scheme.

Edit: A follower on Tumblr gave their own personal experience.

Bee got fired from his job a few years ago when they found out about our relationship. This shouldn’t be happening to poly (and, LGBT) people – but it does. Even the workplace protect[ion] laws here in Canada are weak enough that for some of the time things like this happen. Which is why we fight hard here, and work with the CPAA (Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association – under pseudonyms, unfortunately). Sharing her work details shouldn’t have been enough to fire her. If they didn’t want the workplace associated, they could of had it taken down.

Just because there are enclaves of acceptance, and just because there’s been some positive media attention lately, doesn’t mean that poly people aren’t still (potentially unlawful) pariahs in mainstream society. This is why organizations like the CPAA are so important.

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Polyamorous role models in the media

More positive coverage of real polyamorous relationships in the media! Yay! This articleis a really good summary of the history and future of legal polyamory in the US and Canada.