Isabel Perez had been working in human resources for 15 years, when she took the job as HR director at Ashley Furniture HomeStore. She says executives would tell her to hire only women or white people for certain jobs, and no "gays, lesbos" at all. After just two weeks on the job, Perez, who is married to a woman, says that her manager fired her after spotting a sticker on her car in support of gay rights. The manager allegedly said that God had told her to do it.
In most states, it isn't illegal to fire someone for being gay -- although gay rights groups have been pushing the White House to change that. New Jersey, however, is not one of those states, and Perez decided to file suit.
Perez started working as the human resources director for the New York/New Jersey furniture chain in September 2011. And even in her first interviews, she suspected her sexual orientation could be an issue.
Only 'Good Christians'
Kathy Martin, the director of People Services and Development at the chain, allegedly asked Perez (who is a member of the National Association of Christian Ministers) if she was a "good Christian minister" and if she believed in allowing everyone into the church. The owner, Eugene Chrinian, purportedly questioned her about the ring on her finger, and asked what she felt about hiring gay people and African Americans.
Perez avoided the questions on her marriage, she says, and made it clear that she believed in "equal employment."
But after Perez accepted the position, giving up her private consultancy, it only got worse. Martin allegedly insisted on praying before a lot of their meetings and mentioned on several occasions how she spoke to God.
When Martin gave Perez gender and race specifications for certain job openings, Perez says that she objected immediately. "She asked me not to be so rigid. 'I'm not sure you fit our culture,' " Perez says she was told. "... She alluded to the fact that I may not be the best Christian."
Ashley Furniture HomeStore declined a request for comment.
'You Won't Last Here'
When Perez handed in her documents to human resources, which made it clear that she had a female partner, the employee processing them allegedly advised Perez not to mention to others that she was gay. "You won't last here," she cautioned.
Soon after, Martin spotted a sticker on Perez's car for the Human Rights Campaign, the leading advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights, bearing its well-known equals sign.
God Says You Have To Go
The next business day, Martin called Perez into a meeting with the sales manager and told her that God had spoken to her. "You just don't fit our culture ... ," she said, according to the lawsuit. "I need someone in your position that can embody our mission statement. Your beliefs just don't fit."
Martin assured her that it wasn't about her performance, saying that she could "easily manage the entire department," the lawsuits states. But after just two weeks, Perez was let go.
"A company's managers are entitled to exercise their own beliefs in their personal lives," explains Perez's attorney Gregory Filosa, of The Ottinger Firm, P.C., in an email, "but it is illegal under NJ law for a private employer to terminate an employee because of their sexual orientation, regardless of the employer's religious beliefs."
Perez also feels a new sense of purpose in her field. "I have to make a difference within the human resources community," she says, "in order to bring awareness to the fact that gay, bisexual, transgender Americans -- there are no federal laws that consistently protect us. I want people to understand that this is a real issue."
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