PENSACOLA, Fla. – A Christian woman claims she was fired from her job because she greeted callers with "Merry Christmas," but the vacation rental company says it's no Scrooge and the woman is just a disgruntled employee.
Tonia Thomas, 35, said she refused to say "Happy Holidays" and was fired, even after offering to use the company's non-holiday greeting. The Panama City woman filed a federal complaint that accuses the company of religious discrimination. She is seeking compensation for lost wages.
"I hold my core Christian values to a high standard and I absolutely refuse to give in on the basis of values. All I wanted was to be able to say 'Merry Christmas' or to acknowledge no holidays," she said Tuesday. "As a Christian, I don't recognize any other holidays." Thomas said she is Baptist.
Her former employer, Counts-Oakes Resorts Properties Inc., said she wasn't fired for saying "Merry Christmas," but would not elaborate.
"We are a Christian company and we celebrate Christmas," said Andy Phillips, the company's president. Thomas is "a disgruntled employee," presenting a one-sided version of what happened when she was fired Dec. 10, Phillips said.
Liberty Counsel, an Orlando-based legal group that advocates for people discriminated against because of their religion, is representing Thomas before the federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. Their complaint also accuses the company of harassing and taunting Thomas after she was fired by calling the police to watch her pack her belongs and leave.
Thomas could have hard time winning the case, said G. Thomas Harper, a Jacksonville-based labor attorney who writes a newsletter on Florida employment law.
"I wouldn't think an employee has the right to insist (on saying Merry Christmas) unless that really is a tenet of their faith. She would have to make a strong case that was part of her beliefs, if not, it becomes insubordination," he said.
Thomas has found another job, but she makes less than the $10.50 an hour she earned with the rental company. She said the trauma of being fired and the pay cut has made for a tough holiday season for herself, her husband and their 6-year-old son.
Harper said when it comes to holiday greetings, the smartest choice might be ignoring the season. "The best option is just not to say anything," he said.