Would You Fire Someone for Casting Spells?
An employee comes to you claiming fear that a co-worker might cast a spell on her. What do you do?
If you're the Transportation Security Administration, and the feared employee is a practicing Wiccan, you fire the woman.
Carole A. Smith, one of New York's top-scoring TSA agents (she was in Albany airport's top 10 percent at catching weapons on the X-ray machine), was fired in June 2009, after several months of alleged harassment—and after she said she blew the whistle on safety concerns she had about security there.
Smith mostly kept her religion to herself, but news leaked out after her co-worker, Mary Bagnoli, filed a complaint stating that Smith had followed her down the highway one cold winter evening and cast a spell on her car heater, causing it to stop working.
Smith's response (to MSNBC): "If I could do that, if I had the power and really thought I could do something like that, I wouldn't be working for TSA. I would go buy lottery tickets and put a spell on the balls."
On March 12, 2009, a TSA assistant director told Smith, then 49, that he was investigating a threat of workplace violence. At this point, Smith was on probation: She'd worked at the airport just seven months. She'd also had minor disciplinary actions: She'd forgotten her name tag one time, had been a few minutes late another time, and stayed too long on a break. But the agency classified her performance as "satisfactory."
The spell accusation took Smith by surprise, not so much because Bagnoli was a former mentor of hers (the two had fallen out), but because Wiccans don't cast spells.
"My religion is very nature oriented and actually has a lot of similarities with native American culture. You don't try to harm anyone else. It's not spell casting," she told MSNBC. "It's putting something out there in the universe that you desire, and if the time is right, and your heart is pure, and it's right for you, you may get it."
Spell-casting, she says she told her boss, is "black magic or voodoo or something else"—not witchcraft.
The TSA assistant director testified later that he realized there was no genuine threat of workplace violence—that Smith hadn't followed anyone home; it was just the only highway going toward her home from the airport. He suggested it was a personality conflict made worse by fear of an unfamiliar religion, and that the pair should go into mediation, with Smith educating Bagnoli about her religion. But Smith refused.
What followed, Smith says, were months of harassment. Some of the incidents were of the "Where'd you park your broom today?" variety (yes, that was an actual remark—and Smith does have three black cats, a crystal ball, a broom, and a fondness for the Broadway show Wicked). Others were more sinister. She eventually was fired in June 2009.
Smith filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint, claiming, among other things, religious discrimination and emotional stress caused by harassment.
She wants her job back, assignment to a different airport and back pay, along with the bonuses she earned for being a good discoverer of weapons.
The judge ruled against her last year.
Cheryl Scott-Johnson argued on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the TSA. She said: "There was no discrimination here based on Ms. Smith's religion. Ms. Smith was removed during her probationary period because of conduct, behavior, and her performance."
But in the case, even the judge pointed out that officials kept changing their stories.
In a statement to AOL Travel news, the agency said the judge ruled in TSA's favor "noting that her termination from TSA was non-discriminatory." The agency wouldn't comment further because the case is currently under appeal.
Inc. contributing editor Courtney Rubin was for five years a London-based staff writer for People magazine. Rubin, a former senior writer for Washingtonian magazine, has written for the New York Times magazine, Time, Marie Claire, and other publications. She is the author of The Weight-Loss Diaries.