AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis
A Mississippi gubernatorial candidate is currently facing widespread backlash over his controversial decision to bar a female reporter from covering him for a day without bringing along a male colleague.
Republican state representative Robert Foster told Mississippi Today's Larrison Campbell that she could not join his campaign for a ride-along day on the trail.
He said he and his wife follow the "Billy Graham Rule," in which Christian men avoid ever being alone with women other than their wives, "to avoid any situation that may evoke suspicion or compromise of our marriage."
Professor Joanna Grossman, a prominent scholar and expert on employment and gender discrimination law, told INSIDER that Foster banning Campbell from covering him alone doesn't violate federal anti-discrimination law Title VII.
Title VII only covers discrimination within an employer-employee relationship.
But Grossman added that the blanket policy Foster described in his tweets of not being alone with another woman in following the Billy Graham rule "would violate several different laws" in the context of his current position as a state representative.
Under the Equal Protection clause, government officials like state representatives and governors "cannot treat people differently on the basis of sex without an important governmental interest," Grossman explained.
A Mississippi gubernatorial candidate is currently facing widespread backlash over his controversial decision to bar a female reporter from covering him for a day without bringing along a male colleague because of his Christian beliefs — but his policy of never being alone with a woman who isn't his wife could violate federal law.
Republican state representative Robert Foster caused an uproar by citing his Christian faith to tell a female reporter, Mississippi Today's Larrison Campbell, that she could not join his campaign for a ride-along day on the trail unless a male colleague accompanied her.
In a Tuesday column for the site, Campbell said the Foster campaign told her they couldn't allow her to report on the campaign for a day alone "because they believed the optics of the candidate with a woman, even a working reporter, could be used in a smear campaign to insinuate an extramarital affair."
In a series of Wednesday and Thursday tweets, Foster said it wasn't just optics but also his Christian beliefs that he refused to be alone with another woman, writing, "the liberal left lost their minds over the fact I choose not to be alone with another woman. They can't believe, that even in 2019, someone still values their relationship with their wife and upholds their Christian Faith."
Foster further explained that he and his wife "made a commitment to follow the 'Billy Graham rule,'" named for the late Evangelical pastor Billy Graham who urged Christian men to avoid being alone with women other than their wives, and "to avoid any situation that may evoke suspicion or compromise of our marriage," he said.
Both Foster and Campbell appeared on CNN's "New Day" to discuss the situation, with Foster asserting, "my truck, my rules" in defense of his position.
But Foster's truck isn't exempt from federal anti-discrimination laws.
Professor Joanna Grossman, the Ellen K. Solender Endowed Chair in Women and the Law at Southern Methodist University Law School and a leading expert in gender discrimination law, told INSIDER in a Thursday email that while denying Campbell the chance to ride along with his campaign may not constitute workplace discrimination, following the "Billy Graham rule" could cause problems in his current job — and down the line if he became governor.
Foster isn't the first politician to come under scrutiny for invoking the so-called "Billy Graham rule" in the workplace. Vice President Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian, said in a 2002 interview that he too has a personal policy of never dining alone with a woman who is not his wife, Karen, and never attending events with alcohol served without her.
But Grossman wrote for Vox in 2017 that Pence and others like Foster who abide by this personal policy could be illegally discriminating against their female employees under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which establishes anti-discrimination protections in the workplace for "protected characteristics," including sex.
Grossman said in the piece that under Title VII, "an employer cannot set the terms and conditions of employment differently for one gender than for the other" and "employers are also not permitted to base employment decisions on gender-based stereotypes."
Grossman explained to INSIDER that the particular case of Foster banning Campbell from covering him on the trail without a male colleague isn't a violation of Title VII, because the law only regulates discrimination within employer-employee relationships and not professional relations between political candidates and reporters.
"To the extent this situation involves him as a candidate, it may not run afoul of any anti-discrimination laws. It's still wrong, misguided, and unfair, however," she said.
But Grossman added that the blanket policy Foster described in his tweets of not being alone with another woman in following the Billy Graham rule "would violate several different laws" if it means he refuses to meet alone with his female employees in his current job solely because of their sex.
Under the Equal Protection clause, government officials like state representatives and governors "cannot treat people differently on the basis of sex without an important governmental interest and a substantial relationship between the means chosen and the end served," Grossman told INSIDER.
In a Thursday appearance on CNN, Campbell charged that Foster was treating her "as a sexual object first and a reporter second," and Grossman agreed that even if men in positions in power feel the need to abide by the Billy Graham rule for religious reasons, normalizing antiquated stereotypes about gender roles harms ultimately women in the workplace.
"The troubling part of this story is that the very 'rule' itself is founded on the assumption that women exist to titillate and tempt men, even in a professional setting in which they simply seek to do their jobs," Grossman added. "Equality is foreclosed by a system predicated on that assumption."