Iowa is a far more liberal state than it often gets credit for. Lumped in the middle of the country between Wisconsin – whose leaders have been doing some great work lately – and Kansas – which also rocks our socks off – Iowa chugs along, boasting a political life that's pretty evenly divided between conservatives and liberals. So the fact that the state's Supreme Court upheld a ruling Friday that it was cool for a dentist to fire his female assistant for being too hot is a far more devastating blow than it might usually be for those hardened to the world of sex discrimination.
Remember James Knight, that kindly dentist who fired his assistant Melissa Nelson because her clothes were "too tight and revealing" – in his words "distracting" – and it was breaking up his marriage? Back in December, the Iowa Supreme Court thought it was totally cool that Knight get rid of his manly urges by getting rid of Nelson, writing:
...the issue before us is not whether a jury could find that Dr. Knight treated Nelson badly. We are asked to decide only if a genuine fact issue exists as to whether Dr. Knight engaged in unlawful gender discrimination when he fired Nelson at the request of his wife. For the reasons previously discussed, we believe this conduct did not amount to unlawful discrimination, and therefore we affirm the judgment of the district court.
Nelson appealed their ruling, but the all-male court came to the same conclusion today as they did in December, noting that their ruling has "limits" because Nelson "did not bring a sexual harassment or hostile work environment claim":
When employees are terminated due to consensual, romantic or sexually suggestive relationships with their supervisors, courts generally conclude the reason does not amount to sex discrimination because the adverse employment consequence is based on sexual activity rather than gender.
Close personal relationships between men and woman can often produce personal emotions and conduct that are unfamiliar to the workplace relationship targeted by the general prohibition against gender discrimination in the workplace.
In view of the undisputed fact of a personal relationship between Nelson and Dr. Knight, Nelson has failed to engender a fact question on her claim that Dr. Knight’s decision to terminate her was motivated by her status as a woman.
Remember that this is a man who testified that, “I don’t think it’s good for me to see her wearing things that accentuate her body.”
Nelson told ABC News she is "devastated", adding that the court "is sending a message that men can do whatever they want in the work force.” Her lawyer expanded on Nelson's feelings, noting that:
Although people act for a variety of reasons, it is very common for women to be targeted for discrimination because of their sexual attractiveness or supposed lack of sexual attractiveness. That is discrimination based on sex. Nearly every woman in Iowa understands this because we have experienced it for ourselves.
Maybe cut out "in Iowa."