September 30, 2008

Judges to Hear Gay Bias Appeal

By Jason Cato

Judges from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia will be in Pittsburgh beginning today for a special session that will include oral arguments in an appeal by a Penn Hills man who claims his former employer retaliated and discriminated against him for being gay.

Brian D. Prowel, 39, sued his former employer, Butler-based Wise Business Forms, claiming he was harassed for being an effeminate man and routinely told his homosexuality "was inconsistent with the culture in a 'good Christian company,'" states his lawsuit filed in February 2006. The lawsuit claims Prowel was subjected to sex- and religious-based harassment while working at Wise from July 1991 until he was fired in December 2004.

Prowel claims that after he was "outed" at work in 1997, employees repeatedly called him derogatory names such as "Rosebud" and "Princess," left items such as a pink feathered tiara, lubricant jelly and "man-seeking-man" personal ads at his work station and sent him religious materials saying he would "burn in hell."

The company claims Prowel was laid off because of a lack of work.

In September 2007, U.S. District Judge Terrence F. McVerry said "the conduct which Prowel apparently suffered at the hands of his co- workers was reprehensible." Still, the judge rejected Prowel's claim that he was mistreated because he did not conform to behaviors exhibited by most men and that he suffered religious discrimination, because he admitted to having no religious beliefs about homosexuality. McVerry dismissed the case, saying federal law does not protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The American Civil Liberties Union and 21 women's rights organizations filed "friends of the court" briefs in support of Prowel's appeal.

"The decision of the district court ignores extensive Supreme Court precedent disapproving rigid gender-based stereotypes restricting men's and women's roles inside and outside the workplace," wrote Susan Frietsche, a lawyer for the Women's Law Project. "(L)esbian and gay litigants bringing gender stereotyping claims carry no greater evidentiary burden that heterosexual litigants."

Arguments in Prowel's appeal are to be heard Tuesday at the U.S. District Courthouse, Downtown. Oral arguments in other cases are scheduled through Wednesday before Judges D. Michael Fisher, Michael A. Chagares and Thomas M. Hardiman.

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