It is hard to write seriously about the Iowa dental assistant who was fired. I am sure it is a serious matter for Melissa Nelson, the dental assistant. It is probably about to become serious for James and Jeanne Knight because they have set themselves up to be objects of ridicule. Nevertheless, I will try. I will be serious. I will.
According to the news reports, Nelson was fired because the dentist found her too attractive. According to the opinion of the Supreme Court of Iowa, Nelson was fired because the dentist’s wife, Jeanne Knight, was concerned about the relationship between her husband and Nelson. Here is the case. See what you think.
The question as the court construes it is this: “Can a male employer terminate a female employee because the employer’s wife…is concerned about the nature of the relationship between the employer and the employee?” Answer: Yes, he may.
The question as I have seen it treated—ordinarily, I would say “discussed,” but this case does not seem to lend itself to “discussion”—is whether the law offers Melissa Nelson any recourse, after having been fired by her employer. The answer is: No, it does not. Not, at least, in Iowa.
So here is Melissa Nelson. If I were going to take a picture of her as an innocent victim, I would put her in a loose-fitting gray sweater with a scarf around her neck and use a shelf or so of law books as the background. That’s what they have done here and I applaud their judgment. If you would like to see extravagantly worse judgment, you may google “Melissa Nelson, dental assistant” and see what has been done with the issue.
I would like to use this very small public forum of mine to look at this issue in three other ways. I want to consider the realistic options available to Mrs. Knight; then what a healing intervention by their pastor might have done; and finally, the very difficult legal argument the court was required to use in its decision. There will be a huge celebration of “the issue” in the online news sites, in the press, and on TV. It will be ridiculed by everyone. I think my approach is better.
My first reaction, when I read in the court’s decision, that James Knight acted at his wife’s urging, was to regard her as a bit player in a drama that was not about her. But if she values her marriage, maybe it is about her; there is, at least, a way of looking at the issue that takes her interests into account.
Jeanne Knight sees her marriage going away because she has failed to act to save it. The first question you run into, if you are willing to start there, is: Is my marriage in danger of dissolution? If you think it is, the next question would likely be: Is there anything I can do to help save it? I you think there is, you look at the elements of the problem. My husband, James Knight is more erotically attracted to his dental assistant than he wants to be. His employee, Melissa Nelson, is much more attractive to him than is compatible with my continuing to have a happy marriage.
Now picture these options.
Scenario 1: Jeanne has a sit-down talk with her husband and asks him to be less erotically attracted to Melissa than he is.
Scenario 2: Jeanne admits that there is no way for James to be less attracted to Melissa than he is, but urges him to be very careful about seeming, in any way, to act on his feelings.
Scenario 3: Jeanne tells her husband that there is room for one erotic attraction in his life, but not for two. It is time for him to make a choice.
I have to admit that Scenario 3 is the only one in which Jeanne, herself, can act on her behalf or on behalf of the marriage. By contrast, picture her asking James to feel differently than he does feel or to be continually aware that he needs to refrain from acting on his feelings. If you are reluctant to dismiss Scenario 2, I ask you to imagine yourself in the position of a patient undergoing root canal at the hands of a dentist whose mind is largely elsewhere.
So much for Jeanne Knight. Another way to look at this is from the standpoint of the church. Frank Hearn, a communitarian author and a favorite of mine, has a vocabulary that can help us here. Most important transactions, Hearn writes, really should be taking place in a community where people know and care for each other. Some issues that can be handled well only by a community are highjacked and sent off to be dealt with by the courts. He calls this process juridification. This question of sexual attraction in the workplace can best be handled by the people who actually know what is going on. It is a good deal too subtle for the courts to handle competently.
So let’s start with the religious community. Let’s imagine—I have nothing but the neighborhood church to go on and I am choosing it instead of inventing a church—that all four people are members of the same church. It would be the Faith Baptist Church of Fort Dodge, Iowa, which looks to be a block or so east of the Knight home. So Steve and Melissa Nelson would be members of this church and so would James and Jeanne Knight.
It would not be hard for the pastor of the church to recall St. Paul’s words about “taking a brother to court.” Paul’s advice is, “Don’t do it.” Here’s the text from 1 Corinthians 6.
Is one of you with a complaint against another so brazen as to seek judgment from sinners and not from God’s holy people? …when you have matters of this life to be judged, you bring them before those who are of no account in the Church! I say this to make you ashamed of yourselves. Can it really be that it is impossible to find in the community one sensible person capable of deciding questions between brothers, and that this is why brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers?
Of course, Fort Dodge, Iowa and ancient Corinth are not similar places and we don’t categorize “the church” and “the world” that way anymore. Still, it is not hard to imagine a pastor who cares about saving relationships as well as people to think of the situation more broadly. Here is something he might have said.
“I’m glad the four of you were willing to sit down with me to talk about this. The media will have a field day with us all if this gets into the court system. All of you are going to be damaged if that happens and we don’t need to do that. Here’s what needs to happen. Melissa needs an apology. James and Jeanne, that’s your job. She is going to lose a job she likes and is going to become a figure to be ridiculed. If she is going to have to take another job, she needs a sincere apology, a letter of recommendation that sounds like it came from God, a guarantee of a new job without any loss of income.
Melissa, you and Steve and going to have to find some charity in your hearts for James and Jeanne. Jeanne is not crazy to be concerned about whether her marriage is going to be destroyed. Marriages get destroyed by workplace flirtations all the time. James has crossed the line that is supposed to separate employer conduct from sexual flirtation. That was wrong. On the other hand, he tried not to cross that line for a long time and under the circumstances, I think you can find it in your hearts to forgive him when he was not successful.”
Let me stop and remind you that most of that is made up. It isn’t implausible, however, and it does defeat the threat of juridification. Actual persons apologize and forgive. Actual persons have their financial well-being taken into account. I think it is a pretty good outcome. It does require that the pastor take a very broad look at the issue and a pretty aggressive approach to the two couples, but I have seen pastors do that.
And finally, what happens if the matter is not handled within the community. It goes to court. And Nelson’s attorney employs the “but-for” strategy. Nelson would not have been fired “but for” being a woman. Not so, says Dr. Knight’s attorney. It was the nature of the relationship and the threat to the marriage that are the issue. Absolutely, says Nelson’s attorney, and you are telling us that there would have been this threat to the marriage if Nelson were not a woman? That’s what you are telling us.
The Iowa Supreme Court wound up contrasting a “condition”—unjust treatment of an employee—with a “motive:” this was done to save the Knight’s marriage. That just seems like bad law to me. It doesn’t seem stable. And the only court in the land to which this case could be appealed is the U. S. Supreme Court and I would have no hope at all that the legal issues would be sorted out there.
 Ordinarily, I would have said “objects of ridicule by the liberal press,” but I saw a broadcast about the issue on ABC in which both Mr. and Mrs. Knight and the Iowa State Supreme Court were trashed. ABC is not any part of “the liberal media.”
 “Those who are of no account in the church”—which is not a pejorative expression in the context of the letter—would include the Supreme Court of Iowa and the 8th and 11th (federal) Circuit Courts of Appeals.