Interesting story last week in the Baxter County Bulletin of a a county road department’s unsuccessful appeal of his firing. It raises the question of whether a county worker was fired because of his wife’s social media comments about the controversial courthouse Nativity scene.

County Judge Mickey Pendergrass seems to have summarily dismissed Paul Thinnes without initially giving him his grievance appeal or telling him why he was fired.

Arkansas is a fire-at-will state. County judges are dictators of what limited ground they survey. Thinnes got his appeal before the Quorum Court. They backed the judge, not having much leeway under the law to do otherwise. 

Thinnes, who had a clean personnel record, said he’d raised some questions about safety issues. Pendergrass at the appeal hearing said the termination letter listed no reasons as a favor to Thinnes in seeking future employment. Pendergrass said Thinnes was “obstinate, constantly complaining, belligerent, disrespectful, thought he knew more than his supervisors, was not a team player and had a negative attitude that lowered employee morale.”

Perhaps. But Thinnes suspected something else was at work:

According to Thinnes, his dismissal came as a surprise after he started raising questions about safety issues. He said he thought the firing also may have been because of his and his wife’s beliefs, particularly her Facebook comments about the nativity scene issue. Pendergrass and Baxter County are being sued because of the nativity scene on the courthouse lawn. Thinnes said he believed his constitutional rights were violated for he and his wife speaking up.

“I just find it a coincidence when I get vocal, and she expresses her thoughts, I get terminated.”

“I just find it a coincidence when I get vocal, and she expresses her thoughts, I get terminated,” said Thinnes.

[The county’s attorney, Jason] Owens, who also represents Pendergrass and the county in the nativity lawsuit, asked Thinnes about his beliefs. He replied that he believes in right and wrong, that he has moral and ethical beliefs. Thinnes said his and Pendergrass’ beliefs differ, that he thinks the county judge is a fundamentalist Christian, although Thinnes acknowledged he hadn’t talked with Pendergrass about beliefs.

Still, Thinnes contended the nativity scene issue may have played a part in his dismissal.

I wonder why the county’s attorney felt Thinnes’ religious beliefs were an issue. Except to poison the well against Thinnes in a locale that has made it clear it has little tolerance for those who don’t hold the predominant religious viewpoint. Baxter County has fought mightily to keep its annual Christmas courthouse display open only to Christians. It has fought — and continues to fight — a humanist’s desire and now lawsuit to place a “Happy Solstice” banner on the lawn. Pendergrass has been vociferous about it.

A blog that covers religious issues, Patheos, has a great summary of the hard-bitten fight by Pendergrass to prevent a diversity of expressions at the courthouse — including subterfuges such as leasing a patch of ground for $1 as a sham to separate the county from responsibility.