Is Burning the Koran While Off-Duty Grounds for Termination?

According to New Jersey Transit, the answer is yes. The public railroad agency recently terminated long-time employee Derek Fenton for burning pages of the Muslim holy book in front of the planned Muslim community center and mosque near Ground Zero on September 11, 2010. Mr. Fenton claimed to be inspired to stage his protest by Florida pastor Terry Jones, who had threatened to burn the Koran but then backed down. In a press release issued after the termination, New Jersey transit stated that “Mr. Fenton’s public actions violated New Jersey Transit’s code of ethics. . . . We concluded that Mr. Fenton violated his trust as a state employee and therefore [he] was dismissed.”

From an employment law perspective, it’s clear that an employer can fire an employee for any reason or no reason at all. This is the meaning of the term “at-will employment.” Just as Mr. Fenton had a right to protest, New Jersey Transit had a right to terminate his employment at will. For this reason, New Jersey Transit has not violated New Jersey law by terminating Mr. Fenton.

The moral of this story is that employers can use your actions outside of work as a basis for terminating your employment. When you engage in an act of protest such as Derek Fenton’s, you have to be prepared to suffer the consequences, which can include losing your job.